Chef’s Dish: Lesley Draper talks to Whirlow’s Pickled Pair

Pickled pears, as served at Whirlow Hall Farm feasts
Pickled pears, as served at Whirlow Hall Farm feasts

As you tuck into your Christmas turkey, spare a thought for the farmer who reared it… He or she will have been up and working since the crack of dawn as usual.

And that’s true at Sheffield’s Whirlow Hall Farm too: it may be a charitable trust, but the animals need feeding every day of the year.

Helen and Ben Davies at Whirlow

Helen and Ben Davies at Whirlow

This Christmas has been a busy one for Whirlow’s team of staff and volunteers. Over the last few weeks they’ve reared 100 turkeys, sold more than 600 Christmas trees and baked dozens of mince pies.

Mucking in with the rest has been new CEO Ben Davies, a former army officer, and his wife Helen, a communications expert and sustainable food champion who has brought her own brand of enthusiasm to the initiative.

“ Knowing where our food comes from, and the interventions made from field to plate, have become increasingly important,” says Helen.

“When Ben joined Whirlow, we saw loads of potential to address this and use the farm to celebrate the stories and the people behind the produce on our doorstep.

Helen Davies at work in the kitchen

Helen Davies at work in the kitchen

“At the same time, we wanted these stories to benefit children in Sheffield. Over the course of a few months, our idea for Whirlow Feasts was born.”

Helen and Ben – self-confessed food nuts – set up the project to raise the profile of the farm and highlight the educational work it does with Sheffield children.

Laid-back dinners are held in the atmospheric cruck barn, celebrating seasonal produce from the farm and surrounding area and the growing number of independent local food and drink businesses.

At each feast, Helen joins forces with a guest chef to create a menu based on whatever produce is available at the time.

The feasts are organised and staffed entirely by volunteers and all money raised goes to fund residential trips to the farm for disadvantaged local schoolchildren.

The meal always ends with cheese – great wedges of creamy-sharp blue stichelton (the old English name for stilton) made with unpasteurised milk from the Welbeck estate. It has also become a regular highlight to serve the cheese with Helen’s own pickled pears.

It’s an appropriate signature dish: Helen and Ben share their views and ideas with an army of followers via their Twitter account, 
@Pickled_Pair.

The delicious fruit, with a distinctive sweet-sharp tang, has become a big hit and Helen is often asked for the recipe. Here she shares it so readers can make pickled pears to round off their own seasonal feast.

For details of the next Whirlow Feast, email pickledpair@hotmail.com

Recipe by Helen Davies, Pickled Pears

INGREDIENTS:

1.8kg of firm pears (I like Conference but any local fruit is best)

Juice and zest of a large unwaxed lemon

600ml white wine vinegar

600g vanilla sugar (or plain granulated)

2.5cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced

2 cinnamon sticks

2 star anise

4 cloves

1 vanilla pod (if you don’t have any vanilla sugar on the go)

METHOD:

Clean two large kilner jars and sterilise in a warm oven

Peel, core and quarter the pears, toss in lemon juice and zest and place into a stainless steel pan.

Put the lid on and cook over a low heat while you make the pickling spice.

In a small pan, heat the vinegar and sugar together with all the spices until the sugar has dissolved. Simmer for a few minutes then pour over the pears.

Cook on a fairly gentle heat until the pears are completely soft. Depending on ripeness, this will take anything from 10 to 30 minutes, although I find it easier to work with firm pears for this recipe as they keep their shape and colour better (the riper your pears the more gentle you will need to be and the quicker you will have to work).

Remove the pears with a slotted spoon and pop into your jars.

Bring the pickling spice back up to the boil and pour over your pears.

Seal, label jars and allow to mature for a week or so, although if you really can’t wait, they will be pretty good even the following day.

TO SERVE:

This is such an easy pickle to make and works beautifully alongside most blue cheeses. Once opened the pears will keep for at least a few months.