Pontack sauce sounds like something made by North American Indians but in fact it’s English and made from elderberries, dating back at least 300 years. And popularised, perhaps even invented, by a Frenchman. It tastes very, very good.
In fact, it’s probably the best sauce you – and I – have never heard of.
The recipes I have consulted say, variously, that it must keep for seven years until fully matured or that it will last that length of time on the shelf. It’s only been bottled a few hours and this purple-brown brew, a sort of vegetarian Worcestershire Sauce, is so tempting it will not be given the chance!
Pam Corbin, of River Cottage fame, gives a recipe in her preserving book but I must have overlooked it and I’ve now mislaid my copy. I came across it online after wanting to do something with all those elderberries still on the bushes that didn’t mean jams, jellies or chutneys, of which I’ve more than enough.
Elderberries are cooked slowly with cider vinegar, strained, boiled up with chopped shallots and spices, strained again and bottled. Now you could just skip to the end for the recipe or bear with me as this spiced elderberry ketchup gives us a taste of social and culinary history, which is what makes cooking and eating so much fun. Food always has a back story.
François-Auguste de Pontac is the Frenchman, who was active in the Seventeenth Century Bordeaux wine trade with London. After the Great Fire of 1666 there were lots of vacant plots in the capital and on one he opened a tavern, in Abchurch Lane, called the Enseigne de Pontac, from which to sell his wines As the sign was a portrait of his father Londoners knew it as Pontack’s Head (note the ‘k’ has been added).
Contemporaries described Pontac as good looking, wealthy and a good cook. It was a fashionable tavern: the likes of Daniel Defoe, John Locke and Jonathan Swift went there. Now whether he devised or simply popularised the recipe is not known but it was handed down through the family, said to have run the tavern for 200 years. While Mrs Beaton makes no mention of it, the recipe appeared in Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal in 1931.
Here’s a recipe. You need to be quick because the elderberry season is almost over.
1lb (450g) elderberries
2cups (500ml) cider vinegar
8oz (225g) finely chopped or grated shallots
Small piece of ginger, grated
4 allspice berries
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp nutmeg (or mace)
1 tsp salt
Wash the elderberries and de-stalk them. I used to use the tines of a fork but this breaks off too much stalk and nimble use of your fingers and thumb will be cleaner (although you’ll have stains)
Heat the oven to 120C. Put the berries in a casserole and cover with the vinegar, put on the lid, and cook for 4-6 hours. Some recipes will have you quickly boiling up in a saucepan instead but the long, slow cooking caramelises the fruit sugars and takes the harshness out of the vinegar
When cool, strain the juices through a sieve, pressing firmly. Discard the berries. Put into a pan with the shallots and other ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer, with the lid on, for about 10 minutes. Turn off, let cool and strain again and bottle. This will give you a thinnish liquid. You can reduce it to make it thicker or ‘blitz’ with the onion in a processor which will give you something resembling a brown sauce.
I was very tempted to add a little sugar but when I tasted the finished result I realised it isn’t needed. The sauce is spicy, acidic but in a good way, slightly fruity and with undertones of ginger (which some recipes omit) and pepper. It is like a less aggressive Lea & Perrins or Henderson’s Relish. It is recommended for game as well as offal such as liver and kidneys and I can see this pepping up my gravies and sauces in the coming months. I had enough for two small bottles.
Curiously, another sauce called Prince of Wales Ketchup, devised by Canadian Mrs Dalgairns, which appears in her Practice of Cookery (1829) also uses elderberries and similar spices, omits the shallots and replaces them with anchovies. On the way to Lea & Perrins?
You won’t find Pontack Sauce in the shops but the website http://www.pontack.co.uk* from which I have got some information sells three year aged bottles at £6.95 for 100ml bottles.
*Since I wrote this the website has mysteriously disappeared and I can’t trace its successors, if any
**2016 UPDATE: My two bottles of Pontack have nicely progressed, still deep, rich and vibrant in taste. I have used the essence mainly to augment sauces but need to remember it’s there! This year I had difficulty finding enough elderberries and had to make do with 12oz. The result was more acidic than last year (perhaps I didn’t have the oven hot enough to drive off vinegary vapours) but I resisted the temptation to add sugar. I shall look forwards to the result of this vintage!