Barnstaple Fair is thought to date back to pre-Norman times, when farmers and merchants from many miles around would bring their beasts and goods to the North Devon town for a week of frenzied commerce mixed with celebration. It was and still is a big event.
While today's fair (begun on the Wednesday preceding September 20th) lasts four days rather than the full week, and it is no longer the huge cattle-market of medieval days, there are elements that retain the links with those earlier gatherings. The opening ceremony at the Guildhall enjoys a series of toasts using spiced ale the recipe for which is said to date from time immemorial; the garlanded glove hung at the window of the Guildhall represents the hand of welcome for those who venture to the town for the event. And Barnstaple Fair Pears have a touch of the ancient feast about them. Barnstaple Fair Pears are these days more likely to be cooked in red wine, or even port, to impart a beautiful colour to the cooking fruit, but in times past cider made locally would have been preferred. The liquid is sweetened with sugar now, but once it would have been honey. The peeled firm pears are stuck with blanched almonds and cloves, and then poached gently in the sweetened wine, which may also be further flavoured with cinnamon, bay-leaf or even coriander seeds. When the pears are cooked through and soft they are put to one side and the liquid reduced to a nice thick sauce which is poured over the fruit, teamed with nice thick clotted cream to make a tempting pudding fit for a medieval merchant.