Fruit, cheese and Italian cured meat. Three ingredients that you perhaps would never have imagined sharing the same plate - let alone in a salad. On the face of things, the idea that these three would clash rather than harmonize seems entirely plausible. Be prepared for a gentle surprise. They complement and contrast - play sneakily and yet comfort each other all at the same time.
However, if you scratch the surface, this combination actually makes perfect sense. Sweet fruit and Italian cured pork are a time-honoured and unbeatable combo that is exemplified by the classic Italian dish, prosciutto con melone, or cured pork draped over fresh slices of melon. Even the salty tang of feta cheese has an effortless and natural affinity with the sweet pears - the most striking example of this type of flavour marriage is found with sweet dessert wines, such as Sauternes, washing down salty blue cheese with stylish ease.
If you are convinced now that these unlikely bedfellows can make a sublime salad, lets have a closer look at the individual ingredients. Coppa is just one of the hundreds of wonderful smallgoods that Italians make out of pork. Neck end of pork is cured in a salty brine, and then formed into a large sausage shape with the aid of natural casing, before it is air dried for around six months. Coppa is dark, complex and richly flavoured. It can be cooked, but is most often eaten raw, such as in this salad. Raw coppa must be freshly sliced and sliced paper-thin, so get your delicatessen to slice your coppa to order - preferably on the day you wish to eat it. A perfect substitute would be raw, super-thin slices of prosciutto, but failing that, you could pan-fry slices of pancetta, or even good quality un-smoked bacon until crisp and scatter over the salad.
Feta is a Greek cheese that is traditionally made from ewe's milk. It is rich and creamy, and due to the liberal salting it receives during production, it leaps out at your palate with a tangy bite. Generally feta is sold submerged in brine, but I have lately been using a goat's milk feta that has been marinated and covered with olive oil. It is sensational - complex, milky, salty and totally addictive. However, fret not if you can't find this sort of cheese, because the substitution possibilities here are wide indeed. Try regular feta first, then perhaps haloumi, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Parmesan or even pecorino fresco.
The real star of this show however, is the spiced pear. This salad is currently walking out the door as a special at our restaurant, but if the truth be told, these pears were actually left over from a duck confit dish that was on our last menu. They really are that versatile. In the simplest sense, they are just pickled pears - simmered in a mixture of vinegar, sugar, wine and spices - but somehow spiced pears sound so much more alluring. You could easily make these separately from the salad, and keep them stored in the refrigerator for literally months - they just get better with time. Serve them alongside duck, or any other rich poultry - serve them in highly flavoured salads like the one below, serve them sliced onto a cheese plate, or even chop and toss them into a dish of braised red cabbage. I have used just about every pear variety successfully in this pickle; packham, beurré bosc, ya, small-sized corellas, and even tiny and delightful paradise pears. So just choose whatever pears are plentiful and in peak condition at your market.
Make sure to use this salad simply as an inspiration - or what the great French chefs would grandiosely refer to as a master recipe. Substitute with enthusiasm, but also appropriate restraint. As long as you keep in theme there are literally dozens of possible variations on this simple, elegant and massively flavoursome salad.
Lets do it.
Place all the ingredients except the pears into a medium-sized saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, to let the spices flavour the liquid. If you have large pears, cut them into quarters, or simply halves for smaller fruit - there is no need to remove the seeds. If the pears aren't covered by the pickling solution, top up with water, and then cover and simmer for about 10 or so minutes. The idea here is not to cook the pears until they are soft, but to just gently warm them through, so they are no longer hard. Remove from the heat and cool completely. Transfer to the refrigerator and store for at least 3 months.
Spiced pear salad with goat's milk feta and coppa
First make the dressing. Place the oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper into a screw top jar and shake well to combine. Cut the pears into thin (5 mm or so) slices and set aside. Wash and dry the rocket, then place into a good-sized mixing bowl. Pour around 1/3 of the dressing on top and toss well to coat all the leaves evenly. Divide the rocket between 4 plates, heaping a nice pile into the centre of each. Lay 4 half slices of coppa around each cairn of rocket then pile the pear slices evenly onto each plate - stacking them just a little, on top of the rocket. Crumble the feta and scatter wildly over each plate - so the bright white cheese provides a strong colour contrast with the rest of the salad. Use a spoon and drizzle the remaining dressing over the top of the salads, and finish with a final grind of black pepper.
So many diverse flavours open up so many wine-pairing possibilities. I always head straight for sauvignon blanc when goat's cheese is involved, but the coppa would dig the company of a lighter pinot noir, or even a rosé style wine. The spice and sweetness of the pears would love a marsanne, or even a fruitier style of viogonier, and if you looked at the salad as a whole, a lightly wooded, fruity, yet restrained and minerally chardonnay in the Chablis style could just take this little salad to a higher plane.