Crab apple crazy!


Chilli and crab apple jelly

This year I’m going crab apple crazy. All that fruit for free which nobody wants is just begging to be turned into jellies at hardly any cost except for the sugar. And that’s at bargain prices at the moment.

So far I’ve made rowan and crab apple jelly and chilli and crab apple jelly and both have been a great success. I can’t think why I haven’t done it before.

Actually I can. It’s all that straining overnight through jelly bags and trying not to squeeze and turn the liquid cloudy, then worrying about getting a set, overboiling and it finishing up hard and stiff instead of coming quivering out of the jar.

In fact, what I wanted was the sort of jellies that excellent chef Hugh Cocker always had on the menu at the Old Post, Chesterfield.

But now I’ve cracked it with the help of Pam Corbin’s Preserves, the River Cottage Handbook No 2. There are red and orange rowan berry trees all over Sheffield and I picked a kilo at the Ponderosa in Crookes. It’s a great place for fruit. Some years ago a local conservationist group planted fruit trees and bushes so now I pick gooseberries, blackcurrants, plums, damsons, blackberries and elderberries there throughout the year. The area, a big patch of parkland and woodland, got its name from local kids playing there after the ranch in the Sixties TV series Bonanza,

As I walked back to my car there was a crab apple tree ablaze with fruit. I picked some and to get an equal quantity of apple to rowan I scrumped more from my neighbour’s garden, with his permission.

Pam doesn’t mention this little trick but I blitzed the fruits in a processor, put everything in a big pan, just covered it with water and simmered for an hour. I tied the jelly bag to the four feet of an upturned stool, put a bowl underneath and covered the lot with a bin bag to keep the flies off.


An upturned stool and jelly bag makes this improvised strained

The next day I had about a litre of juice. It was back in the pan and for each 600ml of liquid I stirred in 450g of sugar. (This is the same formula for whatever jelly you make.) She also recommends the juice of a lemon although there is plenty of pectin in the apples. It’s there to sharpen flavours. As I wanted to use the jelly with meats I tied a bunch of sage and thyme together and hung it in the pan during the simmer and boil.

It was a remarkably quick set (test early) using the saucer test and the flavour and colour, a gorgeous pinky red, is excellent. It will go well with meats and enrich sauces and stews.

Flushed with success I tried again, this time with chillies, a mixture of bought ones from the local Indian shop (costing only pennies) and some tiny ones I’d grown on the windowsill. I chopped these up and added them to the pan while the juice was coming to the boil. I wanted it quite hot so had four chillies, red, orange and green, some deseeded, others not.

When the jelly sets you want the chilli bits suspended in it but they insist on floating to the top. Pam has a good trick. At setting point turn off the heat and leave the pan to cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then bottle. Every time the chillies rise to the top upend the jars and give them a twist. Eventually they give in, the jelly sets and they are suspended all through the mixture.

It’s hot but not too hot. Remember that one way to tone down a too chilli-hot curry is to add a tablespoon of sugar. There’s plenty of sugar in the jelly so the heat tends to balance out. It will be an alternative to the chill jam (made with tomatoes) which goes well with fish cakes and similar foods – just about anything really!

There are still shedloads of crab apples on the trees so I’m working out what to do next!


Crab apples – all for free

Probably the best sauce you’ve never heard of

From this, elderberries - plentiful and free

Elderberries – plentiful and free

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. this: Pontack Sauce

Pontack Sauce

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
4 cloves
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* from which I have got some information sells three year aged bottles at £6.95 for 100ml bottles.

*The pontack website is now inoperative but still tweets @PontackSauce so if you want to buy a bottle rather than make it, try them.

**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!