What is it about the French language? Translate even the simplest thing into French and suddenly it's imbued with an air of sophistication, a certain je ne sais quoi, if you will. Take poires Belle Hélène. A delightful dish, yes, but ultimately a simple one. Described in English - pears with chocolate sauce - it brings to mind a bastardised version of the dish served at many a '70s function centre (canned pears with supermarket chocolate topping, anyone?). But it is indeed a classic, having withstood the test of time since its invention in 1864 by the esteemed chef Auguste Escoffier, who named the dish to mark the premiere of the operetta La Belle Hélène, composed by Jacques Offenbach, and based on the story of Helen of Troy but also a satirical skewering of high society in the time of Napoleon III.
The success of the dish relies on perfectly poached pears, which in turn depend on selecting the perfect pears for poaching - ripe, yet firm, with no tinge of green in the skin, nor any bumps or bruises. The choice is yours when it comes to variety, but the gloriously golden beurre Bosc has an appropriately elegant shape and a beautiful texture when poached. Poach the pears gently, only just simmering them, for best results, and turn off the heat just before the pears reach the perfect degree of done-ness, because they'll continue to cook slightly as they cool in the syrup.
Equally important is a glossily decadent chocolate sauce, made with the best quality chocolate - there's nowhere to hide here. Vanilla ice-cream is the classical accompaniment, and it makes sense to continue the quality theme and make your own or find a great one flecked with real vanilla seeds. Escoffier scattered his dessert with crystallised violets (available at many specialist cooking and baking shops), although flaked almonds quickly became the more common garnish, and we also like the pears unadorned.
This dish illustrates the beauty of simplicity - no toffee cages, no foams, no crazy out-there flavour combinations. Parfait, non?
A story of Greek tragedy and French high society led Escoffier to create this classic pear and chocolate duo.