Cook Like a Clerkenwell Chef

Some of the nation’s top culinary talent ply their trade in EC1. Here, leading restaurateur Russell Norman’, of Polpo Smithfield, shows you how to make one of his favourite Christmas desserts, Venetian-inspired saffron pears with meringue…


Russell says: ‘I strongly associate Christmas with spices. I love the whiff of clove and cinnamon in mulled wine and the sweet aroma of nutmeg in eggnogs. In Venice, spices abound at Yuletide and we are reminded that the city was, for many centuries, the main port between east and west on the spice route. Saffron was an incredibly valuable commodity and this dish resonates with the history and flavours of the region. The saffron here adds a subtle spice and hue to the pears. I also love the contrast in textures between the delicate flesh of the fruit and the crunch of the meringue, which in turn yields to a chew.’


8 medium free-range egg whites – at room temperature
650g caster sugar
250ml white wine
6 firm pears – Comice are perfect
Pinch of saffron
200ml whipping cream


Preheat the oven to 130°C/Gas 1/2 and line two baking sheets with baking parchment paper. Tip the egg whites into a large clean mixing bowl (not plastic). Beat them with an electric hand-whisk on medium speed until the mixture resembles a fluffy cloud and stands up in stiff peaks when the blades are lifted.

Now turn the speed up and start to add 450g of the caster sugar, a little at a time. Continue beating for 3–4 seconds between each addition of sugar.

It’s important to add the sugar slowly at this stage as it helps prevent the meringue from weeping later. When ready, the mixture should be thick and glossy.

Stick down the edges of the paper with a little leftover mixture – this is to prevent the parchment lifting when baking. You can either dollop the meringue mixture into shallow ‘nests’ with a spoon or transfer your mixture to a piping bag and pipe down a thin base in a coil, working out from the centre and then up around the outside to build a more even, round ‘nest’. Make 6 of these. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours until the meringues sound crisp when tapped underneath. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Bring 1.5 litres of water, the wine and the remaining 200g sugar to the boil in a large saucepan. Turn the heat down to medium and leave the liquid bubbling while you peel the pears, remembering to leave the stalks intact. Put the pears into the saucepan with the pinch of saffron and simmer on a very low heat for approximately 1 hour or until the pears are soft when pierced with a knife. Remove from the heat and allow the pears to cool. Boil the liquid to reduce it to a thicker syrup.

When the pears are cool, carefully remove the cores using a corer and quarter them.

Keep them in the syrup and turn your attentions to the meringue.

Lightly whip the cream until it has a fluffy consistency. Now place a meringue onto each plate using a little whipped cream on the base to hold them in place. Dollop a large tablespoon of cream onto each meringue and then place the pears on top with a little of the syrup.

Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts) by Russell Norman, with photographs by Jenny Zarins (Bloomsbury; £25) is out now.

 Our apologies for the misprint in this Cook Like a Clerkenwell Chef article on page 9 of our printed issue 10. Please ignore the last 2 sentences as these relate to another recipe! We apologise for the mistake, but if you would like to know about the other recipe, please see our recipe for Mark Hix’s Oyster and Chorizo Pies.