In 1666 wild boar roamed the land, feathers were liberally applied to headwear and François-Auguste opened the ‘L’Enseigne de Pontac’ tavern. It was there at London’s first fashionable eating house that Pontack sauce, a thick, rich liquid of obscure origins, was first popularised. The primary constituent of Pontack is strained elderberry juice and seeing as these little black beauties are out in force at present I thought I’d post my own take on this tradtional English condiment for your perusal.
- Muslin square/ clean tea towel (old and threadbare if possible)
- Casserole dish (Check its oven credentials, I manged to melt the handle clean off the lid of my not so oven-proof pot)
- Sterilised glass bottles, 1l in total
- Optional funnel
- 1 kg elderberries
- 750 ml Claret
- 200 ml red wine vinegar
- 50ml cider vinegar
- 8 shallots, minced
- 25 cloves
- 40 pepperorns
- 2tsp allspice (or one of nutmeg and one of mace)
- 2tsp grated ginger
- 2 tsp salt
- Pick approx 1kg of fruit, then pick more because you have probably underestimated.
- Strip 500g of elderberries from the stalks.
- Sigh with bored frustration.
- Repeat step 2.
- Pour berries and liquid into the casserole dish and cook at 120oC for 4-6 hours.
- Strain the liquid through the muslin, squeezing the berries for all they’re worth.
- Add remaining ingredients and boil for 30 mins.
- Strain again.
- Bottle and leave for seven years.
- Serve with game, red meat, or stirred into stew and reflect on all you have achieved during your sauce’s lifetime.
When it comes to picking the elderberries it’s all about timing. If you get to them when they are just ripe they should part from their stalks like a harmonious divorce. You will need judge them on their appearance as they are guaranteed to taste like wet towel regardless of the quality. They should look plump, luscious and uniformly deep dark purple. Chuck anything shriveled or crusty.
The original recipe for pontack sauce is long gone and there are inumerable regional variants, made with different base liquids. I tried researching my local Pontack traditions but apparently the sauce connoisseurs in my county didn’t bandy about their secret recipes. The majority of versions favour vinegar but I followed my heart and went for a 3:1 claret and vinegar mashup. I think the high wine content adds body and richness to the bottle. I used a combination of both cider and red wine vinegar partly to add nuance but mostly because I didn’t have quite the right amount of either. If you want something with a fresher, tangier feel then go all in with cider vinegar.
Elderberries are rich in tannins which taste unpleasant and take time to break down. Pontack sauce is therefore best when matured. Apparently the peak time for consumption is the seventh year. I can’t vouch for that but I can say that it was perfectly palatable after seven days. I divided my batch into three bottles, one for now, one for next year and one for the long haul (2024). I encourage you to do the same. At the very least it gives you something to say in response to that dreaded interview question ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’. Still waiting for my sauce…
“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.”
― Leo Tolstoy,