May 20, 2014

Playing With Pears: Séchon


Long ago in the 1800s, sailors would work their way up (down?) the Loire River, heading out to sea. In those days, fresh fruit was necessary for the long trip, yet impossible at the same time. And so was born an industry in the tiny village of Rivarennes, in the Loire Valley: the poire tapée, or, as we might call it in English, the dried-out smashed pear.

In the 19th century, these pears accounted for a quarter of the town's revenue. I'm guessing it took up more than a quarter of the town's time, though. There's a lot of labor involved in drying pears whole, as opposed to simply slicing and drying them (which would have been easier, let's face it). They are still done the way they used to be, albeit in much tinier batches, by hand and in deep wood-fired ovens. They are flattened after being heated and dehydrated, which seems like an excellent way to get out some pent-up anger.

We are taken to Rivarenne by our delightful French castle host, Gilles, who wants to introduce us to the poire tapée. Even he, a native Frenchman, is skeptical that we will succeed in our mission, since, as he puts it, "I've tried to come to the Poires Tapées Museum 26 times, and it's always closed." Ever the optimist -- or perhaps just the resigned Frenchman -- he continues, "But perhaps the 27th time will be the charm." And it is. We are rewarded by an open museum and, more importantly, museum store, where I buy this bag of pears.


Now, to be honest, I am a little skeptical myself. I figure I've just paid $10 for a small bag of starchy, styrofoamy dried pears that I could buy and equally not enjoy in slices at Trader Joe's for a fraction of the cost. However, I am a big enough person to admit when I am wrong. It turns out that the poires tapées do not taste like those dried apple and pear snacks at all. They have retained enough moisture to be more like a good dried fig or date. The woman at the store carefully picks out a bag for me where she can see the caramelization and sugar crystallization on the outside of the pears, and I am grateful, as they really do have a naturally candied feel to them. They're not earth-shattering, but they're sweet and pleasant and different than other dried fruits, especially as I can hold them by the stem and then have to eat around the core (or do I? Am I simply supposed to crunch through? I must try this on the next pear.).
But now comes the part I can hardly explain. I've tasted a pear and enjoyed it. But apparently, one of the most desirable ways to eat a poire tapée is to rehydrate it, slowly over low heat for hours. So now that somebody has painstakingly removed all the moisture from my pear by the sweat of their brow and through the patience of long labor, I am supposed to painstakingly replace all the moisture from my pear by the sweat of my brow and through the patience of long labor. Clearly, if I'm going to bother doing this, I'm going to rehydrate it with white wine or at least some sort of flavored syrup. Otherwise, honestly, what would be the point?


Aged for a long time, this is a dried out, wrinkly, little prune of a cheese can sometimes be made from goat's milk or is just sometimes mis-represented as being made of goat's milk. The only versions I've seen in person, however, are raw cow's milk, and that's what I taste as well. In this case, my Séchon is a farmhouse version that comes from Isère, but they can come from elsewhere in France, too.

The name most likely comes from the word "secher" meaning "to dry out" -- just like a prune, in fact. They are aged two weeks -- and often more -- which means that not only will the outside be wrinkly but also the inside will approach crunchy status while also tasting stronger and stronger. You may get not just a waft of stink but also a little pepper kick in your crunch.


Like the poires tapées, this little Séchon cheese disk -- and even the name -- is all dried out.


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