Book Notes: The Original Warden Pear, by Margaret Roberts

The Original Warden Pear by Margaret Roberts. 2nd edtn. Eventispress (2018)

This short but hugely informative book takes an in-depth look at a type of pear with a long pedigree and a huge degree of historical significance: the warden.

During the middle ages, the name ‘warden pears’ or just ‘wardens’ was given to a type of pear that stayed rock-hard even when ready to pick, were all-but inedible raw, and therefore had to be cooked, but cooked absolutely beautifully. They were considered so important a staple fruit crop that they were often classed alongside pears (as in “warden-trees”) rather than as a sub-set of them.

Margaret Roberts begins by exploring the extant documented history of the warden pear, as well as its etymology. The commonly-held belief is that the name ‘warden’ was taken from Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire, whose arms bear three golden pears (as per the book’s cover). Archived records show that there were indeed pear orchards that were leased to tenants in the sixteenth century and may previously have been worked by the monks of the abbey, but Roberts is quick to pour cold water on the received wisdom of a direct link between Warden Abbey and the naming of the pear. She points out that weardian is Anglo-Saxon for ‘keeping’ or ‘guarding’, and warder is an old French word meaning to preserve or conserve, and concludes: “John Palsgrave hit the nail on the head when he translated wardon as poire de garde, which simply meant ‘keeping pear’.”

The warden is therefore a large, solid, eminently cookable type of pear that keeps extremely well. No wonder it was so hugely popular throughout the middle ages and beyond, before freezing or anything much else in the way of temperature controlled storage was an option and any foodstuff that could be stored through to the spring would therefore have been a hugely valuable commodity. In addition, the warden would have been one of relatively few reliably edible pears – the more common, wildling types often being called “choak” or “choke pears” precisely because they were so stony and hard to swallow – before the French-led pear-breeding revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries resulted in so many more palatable varieties becoming available[1].

In another chapter, Roberts explores the development of the warden, or the group of warden-type pears; charting changes of name and the other varieties that came to be either classified as or strongly associated with ‘wardens’ over the years. These include the likes of ‘Dr Udale’s Warden’, ‘(Dr) Uvedale’s St Germain’, ‘Spanish Bonchrétien’, the ‘Pound Pear’ or ‘Poire de Livre’, ‘Parkinson’s Warden’ and the ‘Black Pear of Worcester’, or ‘Worcester Black'[2], several of which may well refer to the same variety of warden under different guises; it’s often difficult to tell which from the source material alone. If you’ve read my post on the ‘Hereford Beefing[3] then you’ll know that I find this sort of thing absolutely fascinating, so it’s no surprise that I particularly enjoyed this section of the book.

Equally fascinating – given my blogging side-quest to post as many historical orchard recipes as I can find the time for – are the chapters on how the warden was traditionally cooked and served, and the modern-day recipes – complete with photographs of the cooked dishes – that Roberts suggests we can try at home. The historical material was superb, and included a number of sources that I’ve not previously encountered[4] with various methods for roasting, baking and stewing wardens, as well as cooking them up in pies and tarts. I really can’t wait for Autumn; I have a good source of cooking pears (‘Worcester Black’, which is definitely close enough) and I hope to cook up a warden-storm later in the year.

All in all, this is exactly my sort of book, written in an extremely engaging style by an author who clearly knows her subject inside out. I don’t know if Margaret Roberts is still a volunteer at Warden Abbey Community Vineyard, as she says in the book’s introduction, but if so I’d love to visit the vineyard one day so I can buy Margaret a cup of tea (and maybe a slice of warden pie?) and chat about her research, to see if she’s discovered anything new since the book’s second edition came out in 2018. (Margaret, if by chance you read this post, please do drop me a line and let me know if you have anything new to share on the wonderful warden pear…)


The Original Warden Pear is published by Eventispress, and whilst it is available via Amazon UK and elsewhere, I’d urge you to do what I did and buy a copy direct from the Warden Abbey Community Vineyard webshop instead. That way, more of the profits from your purchase will go directly to support the work that the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity  does with local schools and adult education groups.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 As per this interview with Joan Morgan, author of The Book of the Pear on kunr.org
2 I’ll be writing up my notes on Wade Muggleton’s similarly detailed exploration of the history of the ‘Black Worcester’ / ‘Worcester Black’ in another post before too long.
3 …or have any intention of reading my forthcoming in-depth exploration of the etymology and nomenclature of the ‘Norfolk Beefing’…
4 I predict a lengthy session on Google Books in my very near future…

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