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.

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