Slow Food Pear Apple Syrup from Limburg
In 2007 the Flemish public TV channel CANVAS broadcasted a Monumentenstrijd, a competition amongst the 5 Flemish provinces in Belgium for the best social, cultural monument of Flanders.
The underdog of the competition, the last ‘stroopfabriek’ ( the factory where the pear apple syrup used to be made ) in Borgloon, won the competition.
Closed since 1988, the factory has since been restored in part thanks to the 500,000 euro price money.
A specialty of the province of Limburg, now divided between The Netherlands and Belgium, this centuries old tradition of making pear and apple syrup managed to survive.
Its origins and history are worth a full article.
The Netherlands and Belgium each have a province they call Limburg. When with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the United 17 Provinces were split and two independent countries, The Netherlands and Belgium, were created under the Treaty of Verdun, each country kept a part of Limburg. But in spite of politics the century old tradition of making pear and apple syrup survived on both sides.
History of Limburg pear apple syrup
As far back as the sixteenth century people started making syrup as a cottage industry in South and Central Limburg and part of the province of Liège. This was done to preserve the surplus harvested fruit so that it could be kept during the winter period.
In the sixteenth century, the syrup was still mainly made from apples and / or pears. Initially, syrup was produced from local varieties of apples and pears on farms that had a cellar and a press. Other farmers would also bring their fruit to these farms for processing; a tradition called fabrication à façon that continues today. Gradually, many farms became specialized and stopped producing syrup.
Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, Napoleon encouraged the cultivation of sugar beet in the Netherlands. From then on, sugar beets were often added to the production of syrup. They were often added as an extra ingredient to the fruit, but sometimes the fruit was also completely replaced by sugar beet. The demand for syrup increased steadily in the nineteenth century. This created syrup factories where syrup was produced on a large scale to meet this demand.
The traditional syrup recipe uses fruit from tall fruit trees. This is a tree where the growth of the fruit starts at a height of about two meters above the ground. These standard fruit trees can reach a height of between eight and ten meters.
With the industrialization came the introduction of low trunk fruit trees to allow for simpler and faster picking of the fruit. As a result, many local ( tall ) fruit varieties, were put at risk of being lost, including pears such as Malade, Camberlin, Bergamote, Jean Nicolas, Double Philippe, Beurré Hardy, Beurré Clairgeau, du Curé, de Pâques, de Pentecôte and Légipont; and apples including reinette étoilée, reinette dorée, Joseph Musch, Belle Fleur, Brébant, Gueule de Mouton and Tièsse di boû.
For a comprehensive overview of the history of pears, I strongly recommend this wonderful book:
With it, the traditional production of syrup gradually disappeared and was replaced by industrial syrup produced on a large scale. Luckily the end of the twentieth century saw a renewed interest in the typically traditionally produced Limburg pear-apple syrup.
The Slow Food Presidium Limburgse Stroop
Luckily, the 21st century is not all about technology. In 2008, a syrup presidium was established together with Slow Food Limburg, with the aim of preserving the heritage of syrup making. In the meantime, Unesco has also included the firing of syrup as an intangible heritage.
On the Dutch side, there are still four traditional producers who have united in the Slow Food Presidium Limburgse Stroop. This presidium ensures that more standard orchards are planted again. One of them is :
In Eckelrade, about ten kilometers southeast of Maastricht, Mart Vandewall tells me about his company Puurvandewall, which he founded together with his wife Maria. As one of the pioneers in organic cultivation in the Netherlands, Puurvandewall started in 1975 to show that organic cultivation was possible. Besides vegetables, fruit is also grown. What is special about his pears is that the fruit comes partly from a monumental standard orchard that was created in 1905.
The Belgian Slow Food chapter is as divided as its politics. The national website for Slow Food does not have a Flemish version as of yet! And it is next to impossible to find a comprehensive list of Belgian slow food products.
The Artisanal production process
The real traditional Limburg pear apple syrup is still or better said, once again, produced in the traditional way. There are many different traditional recipes, some of which date back to 1800.
Each family had its own recipe which passed on orally from generation to generation. The recipes differ from each other due to
- the use of different varieties
- the degree of caramelization
- thickening times
- the method of firing
The traditional making of syrup is called “syrup firing“, because traditionally cooking is done on a wood fire. The ingredients for this syrup consist of apples and pears, preferably unsprayed fruit. This fruit is then fired in a copper kettle on an open wood or gas fire. The fruit at the bottom of the kettle is covered with a layer of water, so that the fruit does not burn. The fruit is covered with a cloth made of natural material. Think of raw jute or thick cotton. Due to the temperature and the cloth, steam is created in the kettle, causing the peels of the apples and pears to burst.
This process takes about four to six hours. During these hours the stoker must be present and keep a close eye on the fire and boiler. The bursting of the peels of the fruit creates a fruit puree. This paste is placed between the cloths in a wooden press. The juice that remains after this pressing is coarsely filtered and reduced in the copper kettle. This process can take anywhere from four to fifteen hours, boiling the juice down to about 15% of its starting weight. When the syrup has the desired thickness, it is immediately put in pots. After maturing in the jar, the syrup gets an even more intense flavor.
Tradition and eye of the master
Recipes, characterized by a rich variety of apples and pears, have been passed down orally as family secrets for generations. Some date from before 1800. Each family had its typical views on the suitability of varieties, degree of caramelization, thickening times, etc. and the method of ‘firing’.
Other family secrets are how much juice is simultaneously thickened and the control of the fire which, in the final phase, is a game of seconds.
But what is valid for all syrup making is the fact whether the juice has thickened sufficiently into syrup, is a decision which is made ‘by eye’. To test when the syrup is ready, the maker observes the syrup’s consistency by letting it drip off a mahète, a metal blade attached to a long wooden handle. Some producers are able to recognize this point by a change in the sound of the boiling liquid.
It’s THE moment where the ‘stroopstoker’ of the syrup maker proves his craftsmanship.
Types of Fruit syrup
According to tradition, there are two types of fruit syrup. The first is a sweeter variety consisting of 80% pears and 20% apples. The second is a more acidic syrup consisting of 60% pears and 40% apples. These proportions are the basis of the syrup. The quality is ultimately determined by the varietal characteristics, aromas, sugars, acidity, bitter substances and the pectin content.
Puurvandewall makes a third variety of syrup, Rinse syrup, a recipe of 75% apples and 25% sugar beets. This is a unique recipe for a fresh sour syrup in which the taste of the fruit remains clearly recognizable.
Storage and spreadability
Syrup can be kept for years without tricks, even in opened jars outside the refrigerator. As long as no water gets in. The top layer of syrup then dissolves into juice and can ferment. Due to a varying ‘viscosity’, traditional syrup is sometimes more difficult to spread.
Storage at a slightly higher temperature improves this. If the syrup is too weak and runs off the knife, the master’s eye failed, or the recipe has too little pectin, then act the other way around: keeping it in the refrigerator will improve spreadability.
Watch the making of in a 1986 VRT documentary ( comments in Dutch )
Where to buy the traditional syrup?
“Charline’, Borgloon, Belgium
To my naturally sweet delight, during my visit at CRU‘s, I found a shelve stacked with ‘CHARLINE’, a rare to find artisanal pear apple syrup from Borgloon. The taste is as good as it gets: one of a homemade product made with love for tradition.
Puurvandewall, Eckelrade, The Netherlands
Cooking with capers & pears
Pears & capers combine well! Proof are the numerous recipes of which I give you a taste here!
Poached pears with biltong, crème fraîche and capers (South Africa)
What about this amazing recipe, easy & fast to prepare.
- 6 – 8 medium pears, peeled
- 1L (4 cups) water
- 215g sugar
- 10ml (2tsp) coriander seeds, crushed
- 1 bay leaf
- 2,5cm fresh ginger, bruised
- 75g biltong dust
- 250ml (1 cup) crème fraiche
- 25ml small capers, rinsed
Place the pears in a saucepan with the water, sugar and spices. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until the pears are soft, 18 – 20 minutes. Carefully remove the pears with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Dip the pears into the syrup and then into the biltong dust. Serve warm with creme fraiche, sprinkled with capers and with a drizzle of the reduced syrup.
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