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.