In the summer of 1974, I spent three months travelling through Europe in the back of our family car. I have few but vivid memories from that summer, largely due to the unfortunate coincidence of puberty and road sickness which forced me to look out the window in desperate search of a bathroom, a castle or better yet, a castle with a bathroom.
The highlights of the summer were visits to gregarious European family friends, who welcomed us into their homes and shared unique regional food and culture. In Valais, Switzerland, we visited the tiny village of Chermignon, which is exactly as its name implies, both cher and mignon.
Here, shepherds still climb the mountainside with their cows, and carry their raclette cheese, bread and Fendant wine in a knapsack. They prepare their raclette the traditional way: round cheese, cut side to the fire, melted and scraped (raclé) onto pickles and boiled potatoes. After one such day of mountain climbing with the local publican and racleur, we piled into the car and made our way through the valley, past pear trees heavy with glistening glass bottles. Did I imagine that?
Fast forward a few years, and a return visit confirms that Valais is, indeed, dotted with bottle trees. The canton of Valais is home to the renowned eau-de-vie, Poire William (or Williams); it is also produced traditionally in France, Germany and Italy.
In Valais, this regional specialty includes not only the eau-de-vie, but also the entire Williams (aka Bartlett) pear inside the bottle, which is a puzzling novelty. To achieve this, growers fasten a globular transparent bottle around the tiny developing pear, and pick it when it is ripe, trapping the pear inside the bottle. In some regions, Poire William goes also by the name “La prisonnière”, conjuring the image of the imprisoned pear inside the bottle. The remainder of the fruit on the tree is distilled to a schnapps-like 40 percent alcohol, and added to the bottle, allowing the pear to be preserved. The result is an apéritif that can be served cold, after dinner or to accompany dessert.
Photo Credit: Hellomarkers! Via Flickr
Poire William and other parlour tricks, such as the ship in a bottle, fall under the umbrella category of “impossible bottles”. It is easy to imagine the imprisoned pear becoming fashionable in the late 19th century, alongside the taxidermy, butterfly collections and house ferns that were so fashionable in the Victorian era.
Here in Ontario, we grow lovely Bartletts. Add to that the fact that we are not able to purchase pears-in-glass at our local LCBO, and it is only a matter of time before someone spies a bottle tree on their summer roadtrip through Niagara. Missing are the castles and mountains, but at least you can count on modern conveniences.
Photo Credit: Barbara Rich via Flickr