Adventures in Elderberries (and Pontack Sauce)

The past week seems to have stood still and flown by at the same time. I feel like I was gone for about a month, which is often the case when I go out of town. A storm rolled through the day before I left, rendering my cell phone completely unusable for the duration of my stay at the farm. That only added to the sense of complete relaxation, one that made it harder than ever to return to the city.

After our long weekend, my Kiddo seems to be adjusting much better than I am to full day kindergarten. I feel a sense of emptiness, and I feel busier than ever. I contemplate finding a job or a way to make some on-the-side-money, but ever increasingly, I feel happy that I can call myself a HomeMaker.

I did bring back plenty to keep me busy, too. I had watermelons and paper bags crammed full of elderberries. Elderberry bushes grow wild on my Parents' property in many places and though I missed the blossoms this year for cordials, my Mom kept an eye on their sporadic ripening so that I could play with them. She only made syrup once with them just after we first moved to the farm. She wasn't overly excited with the flavor, so she hasn't bothered to make anything with them since. I was more than excited at the prospects of old-fashioned-y elixirs and syrups, and of course the chance for wild, free kitchen experiments. That plummy blue black color kind of got me too...

The bushes were draped with heavy berries, some overripe and some just perfect. My Mom and Dad had picked some for the week or so prior to my visit and had them waiting in bags in the fridge, figuring that if I were to make juice from them, they would rehydrate in the steam bath. My Mom and I picked 3 pounds fresh and stemmed them carefully. A pound went directly into a pound of honey to make a raw syrup. This is the way Linda Ziedrich prefers and I could immediately see why. The flavor of the earthy berries is brought to life under the cloak of clover honey. I'm planning to strain out the spent berries in another few days and try making Julia's Fruit Pulp Cake with the discard.

I dumped a couple of pounds into a quart of cider vinegar to flavor. Using another Pam Corbin recipe, I did this first using the sour cherries, and I am completely smitten. I don't heat the vinegar more than to gently warm the sugar into a melted state, this way I preserve the raw vinegar and trick myself into thinking it is better for me. I can see using the same method for just about any berry or fruit and I can see my love for drinking vinegars increase with every attempt. I didn't stem the berries too carefully for this, I dropped the clusters (cut away from the biggest part of the plant) into my VitaMix and pulsed a few times. Miraculously, the stems floated to the center of the mix where I could easily fish them out. Since I am going to strain this anyway, I feel like I saved myself quite a lot of work coaxing the tiny berries off the stems.

The other recipe that I was looking forward to trying was Pontack Sauce, written by Pam Corbin in The River Cottage Preserves Handbook. I didn't mean not to follow the instructions, but didn't on accident - and the complex umami flavor of this sauce was reward enough for me. Pontack is a English sauce used on meat and game, or to enliven sauces or gravies. Being a base of cider vinegar (I've now gone through nearly a gallon of Bragg's in just over a week and a half...), it has a sour salty nuance, a peppery hot finish, and a round elderberry near-sweetness that is hard to describe. If you have access to 18 oz. or so of elderberries, I'd suggest you make it right away and then let your imagination run away with ideas for future masterpieces.

I should have roasted the elderberries in a slow oven together with the cider vinegar, but roasted them by themselves instead. I kept the oven at 200, and the berries got fat and round with their juices nearly bursting from their thin skins. I did only roast for about 2 hours, not the 6-8 required if I would have followed instruction. I'd like to think this is a quick version of the original recipe, though I have no base to compare it to. I'll probably make another bottle using her more proper procedure since Corbin suggests that it tastes better after aging several months. I'm imagining the finished sauces will taste about the same.

Pontack Sauce (adapted from Pam Corbin)
  • 1 lb. 2 oz. elderberries, stripped from stems
  • 2 c. cider vinegar
  • 4 oz. sliced onion
  • 1 small clove garlic, sliced
  • tiny pinch of mace
  • tiny pinch of cloves
  • 1 T. tellecherry peppercorns
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, bruised
Place berries in a glass baking dish, and roast at 200 degrees for about 2 hours until they are soft and starting to "bleed" their juices. Strain through a sieve (I used a china cap), and transfer juice to a wide non-reactive saucepan.

Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer over low heat for about a half hour. Strain the sauce through a sieve.

Transfer the sauce back to a small saucepan, and bring to a rapid boil. Boil hard for 5 minutes. Pour sauce into a sterilized jar or bottle, and store in a dark, cool place.

The finished sauce was the color of ink. It seems to be one of those things that is deeply mysterious, "kitchen alchemy at its most exciting and rewarding", as Pam Corbin puts it. It's a strange balance of flavor, and it makes me feel empowered to make meat. The River Cottage Preserves Handbook has quickly become one of my favorite books, and I look forward to making many more of her smart recipes.

I should have used shallots, but I couldn't find any.

Do you ever feel like you don't know what you should be doing? That's kind of how I feel right now. Outside of immediate canning and preserving projects, I feel like I should have all sorts of time on my hands. I feel like everyone is asking me what I am doing since I have all this extra time, but the truth is, I am busy and haven't seen any of that extra time yet.

I try to remember how lucky I am to admire things like the color of these elderberries, how it quietly changed to a denim blue when it met the dishwater. All day I wonder what kindergarten must be like, and I'm shocked that I can remember most of what I did when I first attended so many years ago. I hope that I can let go a little, and that the hours I'm spending alone never go misused. I still have a couple bags of elderberries to put to use, so I have a good start.