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.

Blood Orange Posset

Like people, there are recipes blessed with both beauty and elegant names. When my daughter was four years old, she heard a waiter in a Portuguese restaurant say that the fish of the day was ‘pan-fried-fillet-of-golden-bream’. It had such a poetic lilt to it that my daughter repeated the name of this dish endlessly, enchanted by its rhythm.

Sadly ‘Blood Orange Posset’ got a rough deal when names were being handed out. The word ‘blood’ is never good when attached to an elegant pudding and ‘posset’ (like ‘gusset’, ‘corset’ and ‘thicket’) is just plain horrible. But don’t be fooled. Blood Orange Posset is a divinely creamy confection with the fresh sting of Sicilian oranges and the extravagant indolence of double cream. It’s also the easiest pudding I know.

Blood Orange Posset With Candied Orange Peel

Serves 4

For the Posset

2 blood oranges (ordinary oranges or even lemons will work too, but you won’t get the bubblegum-pink final result). You will need the juice plus the finely grated zest

500ml double cream

120g caster sugar

Bring the cream and sugar to a boil in a pan and then bubble gently for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the juice and zest. Stir to combine. Pour the mixture into glasses or bowls and refrigerate for at least 3 hours until it’s set.

For the Candied Peel

Peel of 2 blood oranges

Half cup caster sugar

One cup water

Peel long, very fine strips from the oranges and put them in a pan with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, drain the water off and then repeat twice more. In the meantime, in a separate pan, combine half a cup of sugar and one cup of water and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer for a couple of minutes and then add the previously boiled orange peel to the sugar solution. Simmer for a further ten minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, allow to cool and then hook out clusters of peel from the pan with a fork and place carefully on top of each posset.

All you need to do now is to eat your Blood Orange Posset while dreaming up a new name for it. Since I’m speaking as someone who created a ukelele pop group when she was nine years old called The Umbilical Chord I think I should leave the re-naming to you.