Imagine for a moment you're a child, say six or seven years old.
You're outside playing in the fall leaves or atop some rocky hill. The smell of wood smoke and salt water permeates the autumn air and it's just chilly enough for a wool sweater and a cap.
What if I told you that this sensation – this moment – can be captured in a jar?
I never often got to spend time with my mother and sisters outside of the glorious summer and Christmas vacations that allowed me to travel by plane to Ontario. I was raised almost exclusively by my grandparents, who took me in at the age of two.
There was one autumn day I remember getting off the school bus and Nan telling me with a grin that my mother and sister Jenn were home.
Once the joy subsided I bolted through the front door and ran up the gargantuan hill that led to my pop's house. I remember hugging my sister so hard that I hurt her, making her upset while my mother, pop, aunts and uncles all laughed.
My mother wrapped me in her arms and started crying, telling me this time she was home to stay.
I grabbed my big sister's hand and tugged her to the door to get her to play with me in the nearby hills I used to haunt (the only place where I could sneak away from my overprotective grandmother).
We played and laughed with abandon as if no time had passed and as the day wore down we rushed back into Pop's house, eager for supper.
There I saw Mom at the kitchen counter preparing her preserved pears for the first time. They were green, wedged and glistening with tiny brown freckles of cinnamon suspended in tall jars like something ethereal. I remember the smell. Sweet and sharp at the same time with just the tiniest hint of spice.
“My babies!” she said as we inched closer. “Wanna try Mama's pears?”
We did. They were warm, soft and delicious, coming straight from the secret tree in my Pop's back garden that was so well hidden that I still don't know where it is to this day.
The following is my own twist on my mother's recipe for preserved pears but in honour of her, I still like to call them...
Approximately 5 pounds of pears
1.5 cups sugar
2 litres white cranberry juice
4 1-litre preserve jars or 6 to 8 pint jars
4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
2 litres water
3 tbsp lemon juice
- Sterilize uncovered jars and lids by boiling them for 10 minutes in a large pot with a rack on the bottom.
- Once cooled, prepare syrup. Place two litres white cranberry juice in a large pot on high heat. Once it begins to simmer, slowly stir in sugar until it dissolves along with cinnamon and salt.
- Simmer for about two minutes. Put syrup aside to cool.
- Next, core, peel and quarter pears, placing them in cold water mixed with lemon juice to prevent the pears from browning.
- Add to syrup and simmer again for an additional two minutes.
- Remove pear quarters from syrup with a fork and place as many as you like in the jars, allowing room for syrup.
- Pour remaining syrup into jars of pears, leaving about an inch and a half of space (headroom) at the top.
- Place lids on the jars tightly and wipe away residue with a dry paper towel to avoid bacteria.
Those precious after-school days were some of the best I've ever had. My sister and I would get off the bus together and go play in the hills.
When it became close to dark I would hear my nan calling out my name (her nerves shot) with ever-increasing urgency in her tone as her screeching calls echoed off of hill, dale and cliff.
“WHAAAAT?!” I would yell back in the general direction of my house.
To this day, whenever I smell or taste those pear preserves it brings back those dream-like memories of playing with my sister in the blueberry-covered hills and running back home to a grandmother fraught with worry.
Just as tasting no-name brand oatmeal cookies makes me recall playing Scorched Earth with Jenn on an ancient desktop computer in my mother's basement or (unfortunately) how the taste of bottled bruschetta reminds me of the time my big sister made me eat all of the jarred food in the fridge because she wanted to use the jars to make “sparkle water” and “potions” – which I was later forced to drink.
I guess some childhood memories are better left unopened on the shelf.