Monday 22 August 2011

Pontack - An Elderberry sauce

Pontack is a venerable old English sauce that has been knocking around for at least 300 years. A slightly sharp but sweet reduction made from elderberries and spices. It’s the perfect accompaniment to rich gamey meat

It appears to have been first served in London’s Lombard Street in the 17th century. Named after its originator, Monsieur Pontack, proprietor of the eponymous Pontack’s Head Tavern, which according to AndrĂ© Simon was ‘London’s first fashionable eating house’. Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) "found the wine dear at seven shillings a flagon". Proving perhaps that some things in London remain eternal.

We came across Pontack whilst researching what to serve with pigeon breasts at last weekend’s ‘Montpelier Basement’ (Our Bristol supper club). Elderberries are everywhere around our area right now, and it seemed like the perfect choice.

Famously Pontack is supposed to keep incredibly well, up to seven years in fact, maturing and mellowing with age. This fact is what actually put us off following any of the published recipes…we wanted to use it the next day and we weren’t entirely sure how it would taste after such a comparatively short time.

So, after much umming and ahhhing we ended up making a semi-bastardised recipe of our own, a sort of Pontack’esque elderberry reduction. Success! It was absolutely bloody gorgeous.

Montpelier Basement Pontack

Makes (after being reduced by half to serve) …350ml

You’ll need: -
450ml Water
650g of de-stalked and washed Elderberries
180ml Red Wine Vinegar
200g Golden Caster Sugar
5 Shallots – finely chopped
4 Cloves
4 Allspice berries
¾ Whole Nutmeg – grated
2 tsp cracked black peppercorns
Pinch of salt

First strip and wash your elderberries from the stalks (The stalks are actually slightly toxic, small bits are fine, but don’t leave any large bits in). Dan’s first rule of cooking is ‘don’t poison yourself’…. perhaps you should mutter this gently to yourself as you carry on making the rest of the sauce. By the way, the easiest way to strip the berries is to use a fork. Easy.

Next, put the sugar and red wine vinegar in a pan, and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Turn up the heat slightly, and boil until it slightly thickens and becomes ‘syrupy’.

Add the water, elderberries, shallots and all the spices. Stir and simmer for 5 mins and strain through a fine sieve.

If using straight away, reduce by half.

If not, pour into a prepared sterilised jar, it should keep for a good while (maybe even seven years…. but seeing as we’ve messed with the recipe, don’t hold us to that!). But, and this is the main thing…. It’s absolutely cracking to use right away, just reduce it a bit before serving… to get it nice, thick and glossy. You’ll only need about a tablespoon per person, so this amount makes about enough for 30 odd portions. Its a perfect accompaniment to game birds and also supposedly very good with liver or kidneys.


josordoni said...

oh! and this is something you can also bottle and keep, or use before you have to collect your pension? oh fabbbbbb!

Dan said...

Josordoni - Exactly. You can do either.....It's 'mazers

Gareth said...

Dan - Where did you find the recipe? I made a bottle of this last year based on one in the River Cottage Preserving Handbook but haven't dared open it yet. At the time it definitely smelled as if it needed some time (7 years?) to mellow! Might be time to take the plunge and crack it open!

Dan said...

Gareth - The recipe is partly based on the river cottage one and another recipe for an elderberry reduction. We wanted something we could use straight away, and this worked admirably. Be interested to know what a aged Pontack tastes like.

Food Urchin said...

Ah the elderflower tree, the tree that keeps on giving and giving. Nice recipe Dan, I am looking for different uses too but tell me, did it have a slighty 'muddy' taste to it?

Dan said...

Food Urchin - Cheers dude. Got to say, it didn't have a muddy taste at all. I'd describe the flavour as sweet, slightly vinegary and with a deep fruitiness.

May said...

Might give this recipe a try as I have a bucket of elderberries and don't know what to do with them, except maybe crushing them to dye wool with.

Unknown said...

Mmmmm the elderberry bush in the park opposite my house is calling me...think pigeon might be on the cards this week!

Carl Legge said...

Hi Dan

Found you trying to research the history of Pontack Sauce, hi :)

Is your source (no pun intended) for this the London Encyclopeadia?

Just curious as these odd names fascinate me.

Have just made my first batch. There will be more.


Dan said...

May - Hahahaha dye wool, that sounds a bit medieval, but will certainly work. Elderberries stain like you wouldn't believe.

The Little Dinner Lady - If you try it, let me know what you think :)

Carl Legge - Hello, It was indredibly hard to track down anything about the history of Pontack. My original source for Monsieur Pontack and the Lombard Street tavern is 'Everything in the Larder' by David Mabey, Who wrote...

'The story goes that there was once a hostelry in London's Lombard Street where Samuel Pepys first drank Chateau Haut Brion. It was on the site of this tavern that Monsieur Pontac - owner of the chateau set up his famous eating house. One of his specialities was Pontac's sauce made appropriately from claret and elderberries. In a modified form this became of the the famous of all store sauces'.

Some more online research gave me the name of the tavern 'Pontack's Head'

Interestingly, I found online an e-book 'The signs of Old Lombard Street' which suggests that according to title deeds, the 'Puntack's Head' on the corner of Abchurch lane later became the site of the famous Lloyds coffee house.

It also includes this information...

We find by conteraporary literature, that the 'house was kept by a Monsieur Pontack or Pontac, a Frenchman, son of the President of Bordeaux, who was owner of the vineyards of Pontaq and O'Brien,*
from whence came the choice clarets.

He came to London to establish a famous eating house, and set up his father's head as a sign, which is mentioned by Dryden, Swift and Defoe, likewise Evelyn, who states that, in 1694, the Royal Society dined at Puntack's as usual. He also describes him as "having studied well in philosophy, but chiefly the
Rabbins, and was exceedingly addicted to cabalistic fancies, an external hablador (romancer) and half distracted by reading abundance of the extravagant Eastern Jews. He spake all languages, was very rich, had a handsome person, and was well bred,
about forty -five years of age. I think I may truly say of him, which was not so truly said of St. Paul, 'that much learning hath made him mad.'

Swift, in his letters to Stella, says that the wine was charged seven shillings a flask, 'are not these pretty rates.' Before Pontack had the house it was known by the sign of the "White Bear."
The premises now form part of Messrs. Robarts,
Lubbock and Co.s bank.

* Probably "Haut Brion."

So, in conclusion I could find only one source attributing Monsieur Pontack as being the originator of Pontack Sauce, but there's seemingly a total absence of any competing claims, and it makes a good story don’t you think?

Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed this recipe, thank you. Will be gathering more and making the other version for posterity next weekend!

Unknown said...

Instead of red wine vinegar try balsamic and a large helping of port. Excellent with mint to slow cook lamb!!

Danny said...

I found a similar pontack recipe in one of the wartime Penguin books - made some about 25 years ago - OK, but wasn't that impressed:- kept the bottles. About to throw them some years later - gave it a try and was very impressed.

Looked it up further (can't remember source (sauce?) but pre-Google) - remember reading that it was so popular in Georgian times that members of Gentlemen's London Clubs used to have their own secret recipes and bring their own bottle to dine. The seven year bit was definitely originally not 'up to 7 years' but 'at least 7 years' - I agree, vintage is best, and a thickened sauce/ketchup is good.

Great with strong meats, sausage and mash etc. Also great with rice dishes - but will turn everything purple.

Good eating
Danny Roberts (Sheffield)