The Darkling Thrush and Pontack

It’s that bleak, oppressive time of year when light is sparse and joys are scant. ‘Winter’s dregs’ was how writer Thomas Hardy described it, in his poem The Darkling Thrush. Depending on my mood, I either sign up to the plucky courage of Hardy’s wind-battered bird, trilling merrily from his twig. Or I side with the lugubrious poet, sharing his bewilderment that the thrush could find anything remotely jolly to sing about.

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

I’ve decided that today belongs to the brave little bird, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. And in that spirit I reached for blood oranges, both tart and sweet; for fennel, full of aniseedy crunch; and for Pontack sauce.

Pontack sauce? I knew nothing about it until I discovered Forage, a group of gatherers and foragers from Herefordshire who pick natural ingredients from hedgerows and woodlands and turn them into delicious-tasting products like Pontack, wild rose spice mix and wild herb rub.

I had no idea what to expect when I ordered a bottle online. Pontack is made from cider vinegar, elderberries, onions, root ginger and allspice and apparently dates back to the 18th century. It’s a rich, deep red in colour and tastes like a rounded, fruity vinegar with a hint of cloves. Having tasted it, it seemed to me to be the perfect ingredient for a vinaigrette, although I discovered that a couple of spoonfuls were also delicious stirred into a slow-cooked beef casserole.

BLOOD ORANGE AND FENNEL SALAD WITH PONTACK VINAIGRETTE

For each person you will need:

  • One quarter of a fennel bulb, sliced very thinly
  • Half a blood orange, peeled and thinly sliced. Any surplus juice can be added to the vinaigrette
  • Handful salad leaves
  • Handful walnuts
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Pontack sauce
  • Salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar

Whisk 2 parts of Pontack with 1 part extra virgin olive oil. Add salt, black pepper and a generous pinch of sugar. Once emulsified trickle the vinaigrette over the salad, oranges and fennel and top with walnuts. Serve this sharp, citrus salad with char-grilled salmon. The two balance each other perfectly.

Such a vibrant, bright, fresh-tasting salad would, I imagine, have cut no ice with the perennially gloomy Thomas Hardy. But that plucky little thrush would have loved it – especially the elderberry Pontack. That’s probably what he was singing about.

Miss Galindo’s Canape

I love the concept of the canape. All the flavours of an entire plateful, heaped extravagantly into one perfect mouthful. But I’ve just discovered something I love as much as the canape, and that’s the derivation of the word. Canape was coined in 18th century France  and means ‘sofa’ – a welcoming, capacious, inviting seat on which to place a host of convivial partners. The perfect description of the best kind of canape, in other words. I haven’t enjoyed a word so much since I discovered sesquipedalian – a very long word which means a very long word.

Idle thoughts about sofas took me to Elizabeth Gaskell, the Victorian novelist and biographer of Charlotte Bronte. In 1859 Mrs Gaskell combined a group of stories under the collective title Round the Sofa. Characters gather around the sofa of Mrs. Dawson to hear her account of Lady Ludlow. The subsequent story of the Countess, her feckless son Lord Septimus and her loyal companion Miss Galindo became one of the most compelling strands of the brilliant BBC television adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s work, Cranford.

This is the canape I’ve devised in honour of Miss Galindo, the spinster daughter of a Baronet. In Mrs Gaskell’s story she struggles uncomplainingly to support herself and I figured it was time she was treated to a little luxury. So in tribute to the valiant Miss Galindo, here’s an edible sofa to enjoy while sitting on a sofa, reading Round the Sofa.

CANAPES OF SCALLOPS ON A JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE CRISP WITH ARTICHOKE PUREE AND PANCETTA

  • 500 g Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed but unpeeled
  • 200 g fresh scallops
  • A little lemon juice
  • 1 large knob butter
  • 100 ml single cream
  • 200 ml groundnut oil
  • Seasoning
  • A few fresh thyme leaves
  • Around 6 slices pancetta

Reserve one large, evenly shaped artichoke – put the others to one side to use for the puree. Slice the reserved artichoke very finely with a mandolin. As you slice, place the pieces in a bowl of water which has been acidulated with lemon juice. The lemon will stop the artichoke from discolouring.

Dry the artichoke slices. Heat the groundnut oil in a pan until very hot – it should be about 1.5 cm deep. Test the temperature by putting a cube of bread into the oil and checking that it fries crisply.  Lower the artichoke slices carefully into the oil for around two minutes until crisp and brown. Remove from the oil and place them on kitchen paper while you prepare the other ingredients. (The crisps are delicious on their own, with a little sea salt, but you want to end up with enough crisps to partner the scallops, so count carefully.)

Bring the remaining artichokes to a simmer in a pan of salted water and cook until soft.
Puree the cooked artichokes, along with the butter and cream. Season to taste and keep warm.

Fry the pancetta until crisp and remove from pan. Using the same pan, add a little olive oil and fry the scallops for a couple of minutes each side, until golden. Don’t overcook them or they will become tough.

Assemble your sofas by heaping a teaspoon of puree on a crisp, placing a generous shard of pancetta on top and crowning with a thyme-topped scallop. Squeeze a few drops of lemon over the scallops if so inclined. Eat immediately – no-one likes a soggy sofa.

When Colours Run Riot

There was a phase in the 1970s when interior design ran riot. I remember my grandpa announcing proudly that he’d decorated the walls of his small front room with four wildly different wallpapers and picked out the woodwork in egg-yolk yellow.

I thought of my grandpa as I walked around David Hockney’s new exhibition A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition is vast and overwhelming and throbs with wild colours and patterns. It’s generous, showy and utterly independent in spirit and yet it’s meticulous and somehow dogged too – qualities that pretty much sum up my grandpa.

Walking through Oxford’s University Parks later that day, I felt somehow let down that the winter branches didn’t have the vibrancy of David Hockney’s trees.

But turning 180 degrees so that the sun was shining on the trunks, the colours jumped into life. I got a whole new perspective. And if that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.

Muted, restrained food is the last thing I wanted after the Hockney tidal wave. I craved the idea of eating a riot of colour. When in that mood and at this time of year, there’s really only one choice – full throttle, lip-staining, finger-smearing, red and yellow beetroots. I found a bag of just such a thing for half price at Wholefoods, along with a silver foil hickory smoker from Finland for £2.29.

I have a disastrous record at home-smoking. The last time I tried we had to evacuate the house. But I figured I’d be safe in the hands of the Finns. If you want a really strong smokey flavour, this bag will disappoint you. But for a delicate hint of smoke, without the need for a full evacuation plan, this bag works fine.

SMOKED RED AND GOLDEN BEETROOT WITH GOAT’S CURD AND SMOKED GARLIC

Serves 4

  • 2 red and 2 golden beetroot
  • 4 small red onions
  • Salad leaves
  • Goat’s curd
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • Bunch thyme
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Blackberry vinegar – I bought mine from Womersley Foods
  • 1 disposable foil smoker – bought from Wholefoods for £2.29

Wash the beetroot, but don’t bother to peel them. Slice into rounds about 1.5 to 2 cm thick. Peel the onions but leave whole. Toss the beetroot, onions, whole head of garlic and thyme in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, season and place in a single layer inside the foil smoker. Seal the foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 250 degrees C. After 15 minutes turn the heat down to 190 degrees C. Cook for a further 45 minutes. Remove the package from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before cutting open the foil. Peel the beetroot and slice into thinnish circles.

Make a salad dressing from a little olive oil, blackberry vinegar and seasoning and dress the salad leaves. Pile the beetroot, onions and scoops of goat’s curd over the leaves and trickle over a little of the balsamic and olive oil from the smoker. After its hour of baking, the garlic will be rich, sweet and unctuous – perfect when spread on a little sourdough bread.

 I ate my riotous salad and bread with beetroot soup that I made by baking beetroots and apples for an hour and blending with vegetable stock and a little grated fresh horseradish.

apple on a plate

My grandpa was wild with his colour schemes but exceptionally timid in his tastes. He would have hated this recipe. But he would have loved the ideas that lie behind it, and that’s good enough for me.