This is the season of abundance and fear. Our leisurely summer days seem endless, but autumn days bring urgency. Pick the last of the garden before frost, get the wood in, can those pears! Winter is breathing down our necks.
Kristy Cunnane has apple pies in the oven and jars of spiced pears simmering on the stove. Her home on Happytown Road is warm with the sweet scent of cinnamon and nutmeg. She offers fresh from the oven pie, and while I will go to the grave saying my dad made the best apple pie ever, Kristy’s pie is the best ever, too. She stands in front of her stove, feet bare on the radiant warmth of the green Marmoleum kitchen floor, intent on the five things she is doing at once. She samples a batch of pie filling in one pot and her face beams, “Oh, that is nice. Take a taste,” she says, and offers the spoon. I lean in and have a warm, sweet, spicy apple slide into my mouth. It is good.
This is the first year the tree has produced so much fruit. Kristy planted it fifteen years ago, and says the fruit was always wormy before this. She uses no insecticides, and has only pruned it a few times. “We would cut back the tall center branch so the tree could get fuller, but that branch would just shoot right back up,” she laughs. She is not sure what variety it is, and can’t say exactly what kind of apple tree is growing beside it. She bought the pear for her new home, and the apple tree was a gift from her students.
Kristy is a teacher at The Bay School in Blue Hill, where her students are lucky to share her infectious joy of life. Her home was built with help from family and friends and is filled with things created by hand. A potter friend made her dinner plates and bowls, and the woodstove rests on a brick surface her brother built. The glazed tiles edging it are all different designs in shades of green, and a different artist made each. The walls and surfaces are filled with objects and art. Gourds from Mauritania share space with hand-blown glass bowls, and one of Kristy’s own insanely detailed pen-and-ink drawings, this one of a nighthawk, hangs by a shelf.
The sunlight pours into her kitchen. Outside the wall of windows purple and blue asters and bright red Monarda tumble in wild disarray beside kale, collards and vines from the last tomatoes. “They taste like the sun,” Kristy says of her plump, orange-red tomatoes. “I don’t even bother eating tomatoes if they are not from the garden.”
We leave with a basket of pears, which we will use to make pear sauce and pear liqueur. My father’s name was William, and at my parent’s last home, like Kristy, they had a bountiful pear tree. My dad and I would tie glass jars around the blossoms and wait for the pears to grow inside the glass. This was our primitive version of the famous French Poire William. We would then fill the jars with infused pear vodka. If Kristy’s tomatoes taste like sun, then our pear vodka is autumn.
Winter is coming, and preparing for it is a busy time. There is a fear things will not get done, and the reality is some will not. But it is so satisfying to can fruit for the pantry and bring the last of the produce into the root cellar. “Hurry, hurry,” we say to each other. There is an urgency to get it all done, but it feels deeply calming to sip tea and feel the soft low sun as the sweet smell of autumn spices mingle with simmering pears.
Kristy’s Spiced Pears
6 cups of peeled, cored pears, chopped
2 cups vinegar
4 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 tsp. cinnamon
1tsp grated fresh ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Simmer on stovetop until fruit is soft, and then place in jars and process.
2 fifths unflavored vodka
1 gallon of chopped pear (roughly cored and peeled)
Six star anise pods
Two sticks of cinnamon
Half dozen cloves
Peel from three oranges
1 gallon of water
2 pounds of sugar (more if you prefer it sweeter)
Let all ingredients except sugar and water steep in a glass jar 6-12 months. Bring water to a boil, dissolve sugar in it and cool. Add the simple syrup to the infused vodka and bottle. Let sit 2 months before using. Time is a key element here; if you drink it too soon it will be harsh, not mellow and spicy.