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.