“There’s honey you can make from pears that goes with many different wares” [translation of original German] is what Zurich copperplate engraver David Herrliberger had a farmer in “Zürcherische Ausruff-Bilder”, his well-known work featuring Zurich street vendors, say about this traditional Central Switzerland speciality all the way back in 1749. In those days, pear honey was a sought-after and expensive product, though a little cheaper than true honey. Although this versatile sweet and malty purée made from fresh thickened pear juice remained a favourite topping on buttered bread for many years after that, many chefs and culinary artists are now rediscovering it as a clever way of adding flavour. In the 16th century, when cold weather led to a reduction in the amount of true honey that could be produced, farmers and bakers began to use pear honey more and more frequently as a substitute sweetener when making Lebkuchen gingerbread or celebration bakes, and it’s actually still used today in really good Lebkuchen. The arrival of sugar heralded a change in the Swiss sweetener of choice, but it remained prohibitively expensive into the 19th century. Those who couldn’t afford sugar used either honey or pear honey instead, and particularly during the 30 Years’ War (1616 to 1648), farmers in Central Switzerland and Fribourg began to extract the juice of pears, grapes and apples on a large scale. It wasn’t until the discovery and processing of beet sugar in around 1800 that the importance of pear honey began to wane.
For some time now, top chefs and gourmets have once again begun to explore the many uses of this traditional Swiss product, which has a similar cousin in western Switzerland known as “vin cuit”. These versatile pear concentrates are not just useful for thickening sauces, they also give them a tart malty flavour, while the high concentration of fruit sugars results in a sweetness that goes perfectly with hearty meat dishes such as goat, lamb or venison. And mixed with rapeseed or camelina oil and strong herbs such as lovage, thyme or a little mint, they even go well with ingredients like beetroot or kohlrabi in raw vegetable salads. Pear honey is also perfect in very simple dishes: in Central Switzerland it’s often served with Gschwelti, potatoes boiled with their skins on and accompanied by Swiss cheeses, preferentially strong Alpine cheeses and all types of cream cheese or blue cheese. Incidentally, it’s generally best to buy pear honey directly from the producer, but if that’s not possible, an alternative stocked by many major retailers is Birnel. However, as it’s made on an industrial scale and using a faster process this substitute is far less flavoursome than pear honey reduced over a small flame for hours and hours. Something to remember when you’re shopping is that as producers are unfortunately no longer permitted to use the term “honey” to market their product, it’s now called pear concentrate (Birnendicksaft) as stipulated by the state and in line with the Swiss Food Ordinance. The change of name doesn’t detract from its qualities, though. If you’re feeling patient you should buy half a dozen jars of pear honey right now and store them in your wine cellar, because like many wines it gets better with age. It’s said to be at its best after twenty or even thirty years.