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pear and walnut bread

2019 Grateful 36: Burnt offerings

I can’t remember if I was asked or whether I volunteered. Most likely I volunteered. Mainly because I like the lads behind 6:3 Borozó and had planned to attend their wine-tasting anyway. They needed some nutty bread to go with their award-winning asparagus pesto. They’d tried out my cherry and orange bread and my pear and walnut bread before (variations on the traditional banana bread) but this time I planned to also try my take on a traditional French walnut bread recipe where I used dark beer instead of tepid water with strong white flour instead of a white/brown flour mix – mainly because I couldn’t find brown flour and I could find beer.

The experimental batch turned out lovely even if I messed up the temperature settings. My non-regulating oven is quirky at the best of times and after nearly three years, I had thought we’d reached an understanding.

Wednesday evening I set to work. I was down to the last jar of pear preserves (I like to use local ingredients – I’ve even managed to find flour that is milled in the county) and was dredging the last of JFW’s walnuts. The first two pear and walnut bread loaves burned in places I didn’t expect. Usually, if I don’t watch carefully, the bottom gets a bit brown, but I had burn creep up and over the sides. The walnuts on top practically roasted. I was annoyed. So I made two more without the added walnuts on top. And they were worse. There was no way I could give them to anyone. They looked awful.

The next morning, I was booked on the 10 am train to the city. I got up at 6 am to start on the French bread. All went well until I got distracted. I failed to score them (that deep cross-like incision that lets the dough breathe) and I forgot to glaze them. They looked less like loaves of bread and more like smooth stones. Another failure. I was incensed. I ran the full gamut of self-recriminations loaded with expletives and salted with a few tears (I’m not at my best that early in the morning).

Back in the city, I searched three bakeries looking for a nut bread and had to settle for less. And funnily, in comparison, mine didn’t look half bad. I’d brought a loaf of each of the burnt offerings with me and duly delivered them to the lads who weren’t at all phased. They trimmed and sliced and served and the compliments rolled in. Delicious. Fab. Amazing.

All this made me stop and think about how wrapped up I am in external appearances. If it doesn’t look close to perfect then it’s an automatic fail. No matter that it looked a little burnt on the outside – inside it was fresh and tasty and full of homemade goodness. There’s a lesson in that, one I’m grateful to have been reminded of. Appearances can be deceiving. And just as ugly on the outside doesn’t mean ugly on the inside, neither does pretty on the outside mean pretty on the inside. Time (and taste) tells.

Pear and Walnut bread recipe

In one bowl, mix 3 cups of flour, 1 tsp of baking soda, 1 tsp of baking powder, 1 tsp of salt (and an optional half-cup of fine-ground walnuts). In another bowl whisk three eggs with 1 cup of vegetable oil, 2 tsp of vanilla essence and1 cup of sugar until smooth. Then gradually fold the dry mix into this, adding 2 cups of liquidised pears towards the end. Then add a  cup of coarsely chopped walnuts. Mix well. Divide into two rectuangular loaf tins and bake. I can’t help you with the temp or the time as my oven is contrary – I put it is about 8 pm on the dial and check it after 20 mins, turning if the back side seems browner than the front. So maybe 325 F or 165 C for anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes. Keep an eye on it. Be sure to preheat the oven though, as this helps. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes and then upend onto a rack to completely cool. It freezes well and keeps in a tin for days.

Pear and walnut bread

2018 Grateful 20 | Pears

I’ve always thought the word ‘bounty’ to be a peculiarly Protestant word. Not specifically Luthern, or Methodist, or Church of England, just generally Protestant. I associate it with harvesting and harvest time, a season much celebrated by the Church of Ireland at home. The bounty of Mother Nature, that whereby we eat and live. I see farmers markets, the like of which I visited recently in Warsaw, as a drip feed towards a collective bounty. Farmers balance those who don’t have gardens and the wherewithal to grow their own food. There’s a sharing. Yes, of course, money changes hands, but there’s still a sharing.

There’s no drip feed in our garden – there’s no metering of her measure. It all comes together. At once. Mother Nature has had a right old time in our garden this year. The plums were few and far between, the peaches even scarcer. The cherries were half of what we got last year and the apples? Well, we’re still waiting. But the pears. Man, the pears. This year they’ve gone mad.

At a conservative estimated, we have at least 200kg of pears to be processed or given away. The problem is that when everyone else in the village is in the same boat, no one wants to take anything. Just yesterday, himself proudly returned an egg box to her next door with 10 of his own tomatoes in it (yes, eggs in Hungary come in batches of 6, 10, 20, or 30). She’d helped him plant them. The offering seemed a fitting tribute. But then she gave him 20 of her own. To compare.

Yesterday, I picked and peeled and cored and chopped. I froze pears in slices. I froze grated pears for cakes. I made pear chutney. I poached six large jars worth of the yellow buggers. I even made pear and walnut bread. And that took care of 50kg. The remaining 150kg are destined for the pálinka still. An experiment. His domain.

Come winter, I’ll be glad I did this. I like the idea of subsistence living. I’m all for reducing my dependency on mass-produced foods. I’m a supporter of shopping local. I’m into second-hand and vintage. I prefer old and recycled to shiny and new. I’m all in favour of making life simple.

Village life

Yet rather than taking all this for granted, I’m increasingly conscious of how lucky I am. That there are so many people going without in the world drives me to make sure that nothing we have is wasted. I find myself saving the smallest portions of leftovers, reluctant to throw anything away. The ‘new’ gate in the back garden was cobbled together from scraps of wood. The ‘new’ door in the barn was refashioned from one that came out of the house. I have a vague notion that an old shower frame might well end up as a grape arbour.

And while we’re harvesting and processing, the starlings are pigging out on the apple tree next door on the other side. We rarely see those neighbours. They’re never there. And if they are, they’re there when we’re not. Their fruit goes uncollected, left to be pecked, to fall to the ground and rot. For the last couple of days, a murmation of starlings has descended on the tree chattering at full volume, doing their damnedest to pick it clean. I’m in awe of such blatant gluttony. But they have to eat, too, right? Why, I wonder, have I been conditioned to see this as waste?

Her next door is engaged in a running battle with the birds. She regularly goes out into her fields banging an old tin can, causing a terrible racket, making the birds hightail it to the quieter pastures. But then her livelihood is at stake. She depends on her crops to live; what she reaps this summer she’ll need to get herself through till the next. She sees the starlings are her enemy. I see them as noisy friends, as entertainment. But for us, the harvest is not nearly so serious. It more a matter of making good with what we get. And for those on the other side, the fruit clearly doesn’t matter to them at all. It takes all sorts, each of our perspectives governed by our needs.

The farmer up the road at home brings my mother fresh eggs. In return, she bakes him an apple tart or some brown bread. Her next door occasionally drops in some fresh eggs and in return she gets a loaf of whatever bread I’ve made – this week it’s pear and walnut – which she has just begun to grudgingly accept. Yes, my mother will never be dead as long as I’m alive. There’s a happy co-existence. Last year’s fence war has been all but forgotten. The world outside continues to run amuck. Egos prevail. But in the village, there’s a balance, with give and take and all sorts living side by side and making do. And for that, I’m grateful.