One of the things people often mention about shopping in Japan is the ridiculous price of fruit and vegetables. Fruit, especially, has been elevated to an art form, with perfect, unblemished specimens being packaged and given as gifts. Sometimes fruit is supersized, sometimes grown into unexpected shapes; giant strawberries, square watermelons. If that sounds like fun and you have the budget for it, then Japan is your fruit paradise.
My favourite flavours are the sharp bite of citrus and berries. Anything yuzu-flavoured will get my attention, lemon is always good, and raspberries and blackcurrants are wonderful. Growing up, we had raspberry canes in the garden, and since my father and brother didn’t like them the picking became mine and my mother’s job. Every summer we harvested over thirty kilos, filled the freezer with them, made jam and pies and summer puddings. My after-school routine towards the end of the summer term was to come home from school and go straight into the garden, fight my way under the green plastic netting (they were our raspberries, not the birds’) and pick the ripened fruit.
But there has always been one fruit that I just can’t bear. I don’t see the point of them, I don’t like anything about them: Pears.
I’m on retreat at the moment, and have spent the day joining the Daily Offices at the convent and sitting in the garden and orchard reading Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. I’ve also been wandering round the garden, taking photos and soaking up the beauty of God’s creation.
On my wanders round the garden I found a damson tree, which reminded me of the schoolhouse in Ellastone where we lived when I was just starting school. The school cook used to come into the garden in the morning and pick enough damsons to make damson crumble for school lunch. Even now, when my mother and I see damsons on sale we buy some and make compote and freeze it to brighten up yogurt on winter mornings.
But then I found pear trees, and sighed at the waste of orchard space. Why grow pears when you could have damsons? I considered the bounty of the orchard here; not only my beloved damsons but also plums, figs, apples, even an ancient mulberry tree. Pears. Why would anyone want pears?
Some people in Japan love pears. Of course, they enjoy the Japanese nashi pears, but what is given as gifts is known as La France, the rosy, pleasingly-shaped European pear. Apparently it’s also known as a butter pear. After living in Japan for a long time and hearing friends extol the deliciousness of this fruit I thought, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they really are as good as everyone tells me. I went to a supermarket, bought one, took it home and tried it. I discovered that I wasn’t wrong at all, they were as unpleasant as I remembered them. The texture is grainy, but slightly, unpleasantly soft. Or unyieldingly, unpleasantly dry and hard. The flavour is, to me, off. Slightly chemical. It works as old-fashioned pear drops, when I can think that this is a synthetic flavouring, the work of someone beavering about in a lab. But Mother Nature? No.
Several years ago, a senior student told me that her mother was going to send me some fruit as a thank-you gift. I was looking forward to my fruit gift, until it arrived and I discovered two magnificent La France pears in a specially padded gift box. I took them into school and gave them to a colleague, who was amazed I didn’t want them.
Going all the way back to my childhood, my brother and I used to spend every Sunday with our maternal grandparents, who lived near us. The routine was always the same. In the morning we went out somewhere; a park, a wood or the botanical gardens. If we went to a park we could take our bicycles. A wood meant it was probably autumn and we could kick our way through piles of fallen leaves. The botanical garden had two tropical houses, and in one a parrot, which sometimes spoke. To my primary-school-aged self it seemed worth it to stand in the steamy, smelly glasshouse, hoping to hear the parrot say a word or two. My grandfather was a very superstitious man, and absolutely hated birds. It’s only as I write this now that I realise he must have much preferred the wood or the park.
After our outing we went back to their house for lunch. We almost always had tinned baked beans with sausages. We always ate the tiny tinned sausages last. For dessert, there were two possibilities. One was jelly, with Carnation evaporated milk whisked into it to create air bubbles, a kind of mousse. My mother thinks she remembers her father working for the evaporated milk company at some point and there being a great amount of it at home. I always thought he had invented this concoction himself, whisking the jelly and milk together with a hand whisk and puffing his cheeks out with the effort. This was a great dessert, not your everyday pudding, nothing healthy, nothing luxurious. Sugar. An easy treat, a guilty pleasure.
But what my grandparents really loved to give us was pears. They both loved them, and there were always pears in their house. There was no escape. They had both grown up in very poor families, and had raised their only daughter during the Second World War. Poverty and wartime shaped their tastes. Even in their old age, when they could have had anything they wanted, their treats were flavoured with the things they had been deprived of earlier in life; butter, cream, sugar. And fresh fruit.
I remember hating the taste. I remember hating the texture, whichever end of the pear spectrum it was at, and with pears, it’s always the end of the spectrum. I also hated the way that at some point the top of the pear would break off and you had to eat the rest of it cupping it in your hand. Then I hated the stickiness. Every week, we ate pears, and our grandparents were happy, because they loved pears, and thought we did too.
Years later, when I was at secondary school and university, I discovered I loved baking. When we had been on holiday in France, my grandparents had enjoyed the fresh fruit tarts (butter, cream, sugar) and I found it was not difficult to make them. You made the different bits and then assembled it. I made them pear tarts sometimes and was happy, because they loved pears.
Today I was wandering round the orchard at the convent, and the raspberries, damsons and the pears led me down through decades of memories. I sat in the sunshine and read about Brother Lawrence, and how he did everything for the love of God.
Then I thought some more, and realised far more deeply than I ever had before, just what a gift a pear can be. They are the shape of gratitude and taste of love.