Every now and again I have a go at a recipe from the ancient or medieval worlds, officially for research purposes but mostly through a mixture of curiosity and greed. Since I now own a copy of Constance Hieatt's delectable book of authentic medieval recipes, Pleyn Delit, this time it was one of those deceptively simple but spicy, wine-warm sweets which the fourteenth and fifteenth century loved.
The recipe calls for 1 kilo/2 lb of pears, 500ml red wine, 1 tbsp. red wine vinegar, 125 gm sugar, 1tsp. cinnamon and 1/4tsp. ground ginger, plus an optional 6-8 whole cloves and a pinch of saffron. There are several methods of cooking this fifteenth-century delicacy in Prof. Hieatt's book (recipe 113: Wardonys in Syryp), and medieval cooks would have used pots over an open fire, but I like to keep it simple, so used a casserole and a fan oven.
Parboil the pears in water for a few minutes, then peel and quarter them and lay them in the casserole. Add the cinnamon and sugar to the wine in a saucepan and heat it through until the sugar has dissolved, then strain (if necessary) and pour the mixture over the pears. Cover the casserole and leave it in the oven for about an hour at around 250C (180C in a fan oven worked fine). Remove the casserole and add the wine vinegar, cloves and saffron. If necessary, remove some of the liquid and boil it for a few minutes to reduce it, which will slightly thicken and sweeten the syrup. Put the casserole back in the oven and give it another 15 minutes or so. 'Look that it be sharp and sweet (poinaunt an dowcet)', the recipe says. Cool, serve and eat.
For more detail, more cooking methods and a mass of other recipes, see Pleyn Delit. The medieval English cook may well have used Warden pears, grown at the Cistercian abbey of Old Warden in Bedfordshire, and the abbey's coat of arms (top left, from the abbey's page at Bedfordshire County Council Archives) shows three of them. A similar dish, 'peres en confyt', includes mulberries for darkness and appears in the fourteenth-century cookbook, Forme of Cury.