Mostarda : the spicy and fruity italian condiment
Mostarda is a northern Italian condiment made of candied fruit and a mustard-flavoured syrup. It is a wintertime condiment for meat dishes, such as bollito (boiled meats), or roasts and now a must-have on every tables for christmas season. Mostarda was widely available in the 17th century in Vicenza, Mantua, and especially Cremona, the city with which mostarda is now always associated.
Mostarda, an Italian condiment
Mostarda is a typical seasoning from the north of Italy. This sweet-spicy, colorful and zesty condiment is traditionally made with candied fruit infused with drops of pungent mustard extract.
The name is related to the French “moutarde“, which refers to mustard, the plant and its seeds. The Italian word for mustard is senape. Thus, mostarda is very different from mustard. Indeed, it is made with mixed fruit such as pears, apples, mandarins, figs, apricots, peaches, or cherries, sugar, and mustard essence or grape must. Thus, in Cremona, Mantua, and in Veneto, Mostarda is made from mustard. On the other hand, in Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont, and southern Italy, Mostarda is made from grape must.
The origins of mostarda
As far back as antiquity, the Greeks and then later the Romans used sinapis seeds (a genus of plants in the family Brassicaceae, also known as mustard) for seasoning and preservation purposes.
Nicander of Colophon, a Greek poet and physician of the 2nd century BC, used to ground mustard seeds with salt and raisins before mixing them with must. Indeed, when grounded, the sinapis seeds release that fiery and spicy characteristic aroma. This preparation was used to season fresh fruits and vegetables. Later in the 1st century A.D., the Roman agronomist Columella used to ground mustard seeds into a sauce used as a condiment at banquets. In the De re coquinaria, a collection of Roman cookery recipes, the condiment made frome grounded mustard seeds is used to preserve vegetables and already-cooked meats.
Grounded sinapis seeds where thus mixed with grape must to preserve and season fruits, vegetables, meat and also wine. This mixture resulted in something called in Latin “mustum ardens“, or “mosto ardente” in Italian, which translates to spicy grape must. This is where the word “mostarda” comes from.
From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance
In the tapestry of time, the Middle Ages unfurl a vibrant thread, where monasteries, particularly those nestled in the northern cradle of Italy, become the torchbearers of an enduring tradition. They championed the fiery must, a versatile marvel that served as a preservative, a condiment, and a panacea for ailments as diverse as epilepsy and sore throats.
The “Liber de coquina”, a culinary manuscript penned by an anonymous scribe of the 14th-century Angevin or Frederician court, makes mention of the “compositum lumbardicum”. This was a compote of sorts, a harmonious marriage of mustard and must, that proved to be an ideal accompaniment for meats, enhancing their flavor while ensuring their preservation.
The recipe for mostarda, much like the regions it graced, was a study in delightful variation. Depending on the place and the time, one could find it laced with sugar, honey, breadcrumbs, dried fruits, or spices.
In the 15th century, Maestro Martino mentions a white mostarda made with almond paste and breadcrumbs, adding “agresto” (sour grape juice) or vinegar, their union resulting in a whitened concoction. This Maestro “mostarda bianca” was used to season fish, often boiled, or pork meat. Interesting is the reference to a third dry mustard, “da cavalcata” (“suitable for riding”), to be kept in saddlebags during journeys and then revived when necessary.
A missive dated December 7, 1397, bears testament to the use of mostarda as a condiment, a tantalizing blend of sweet and spicy, crafted from fruits, whole or diced, candied in a luscious syrup. The Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, placed an order for a “zebro”, a pot brimming with fruits candied in mustard, known as “mostarda de fructa cum la senavra”. This was to be the crowning glory of his Christmas banquet, a feast that Duchess Caterina and her court looked forward to with anticipation.
By the 15th and 16th centuries, the mostarda di frutta had carved a niche for itself in the culinary landscape, gracing the tables of nobility and forever changing the way they experienced food.
A medley of flavors
In the grand tapestry of Italian gastronomy, mostarda emerges as a luxurious condiment, its humble peasant origins a mere footnote in its rich narrative. As the winter chill descends and Christmas bells chime, Italians reach for this treasured accompaniment, serving it with bollito misto, capon, or zampone. The epicureans, ever in pursuit of culinary delight, pair it with cheeses or desserts, perhaps a slice of panettone or pandoro.
The Italian culinary landscape is dotted with numerous variants of mostarda. Some eschew mustard, featuring only must, while others reverse the equation. There are versions that celebrate the sweetness of grapes or the vibrant flavors of fruits like pears, apples, peaches, citrus fruits, or figs.
The mostarda di Cremona
The mostarda di Cremona is a symphony of fruits, bathed in a sugar syrup that constitutes 50 to 60% of the concoction, and the piquant notes of mustard essential oil. The ensemble typically includes cherries, pears, quinces, mandarins, figs, apricots, and peaches. The mostarde di Cremona is a sensory delight, its crunchy texture and fruity, spicy flavor tantalizing the palate. This Cremonese mostarda, already known in Europe in the 17th century, has a recipe featured in the cookbook of chef Lancelot de Casteau, “Ouverture de cuisine” (Liège, 1604). The mostarda di Voghera is a close cousin, also a medley of candied fruits and syrup, subtly flavored with mustard. Of the two, the Cremonese mustard packs the spiciest punch.
The mostarda di mele cotogne
The mostarda di mele cotogne, with quinces at its heart, is a Lombardian specialty (Cremona and Brescia). It is gelatinous and packs a spicy punch. Served in quarters, it is the perfect accompaniment to cheeses like asiago, stracchino, or parmesan.
The mostarda of Mantua
The mostarda of Mantua is traditionally prepared with quinces, pears, or small apples with a sweet and sour flavor (known as contadine or campanine). These varieties flourish in the hinterland of Mantua. The sliced fruits macerate in a spicy syrup. There is also mostarda mantovana made from pumpkin, watermelon, fig, or mandarin. Unlike that of Cremona, the mostarda of Mantua never consists of a mixture of fruits. The ingredients are therefore always the same: the fruit, sugar, the juice or peel of an untreated lemon, and mustard. It is used in the recipe for pumpkin tortelli.
The Sicilian mostarda
The Sicilian mostarda, mustadda in dialect, is an ancient Sicilian recipe. It is prepared during the grape harvest with grape must, cinnamon, and cloves. The grape must is cooked with starch or flour. This results in a sort of jellied cake that is then dried in the sun in molds whose shapes have a religious connotation. The Sicilian mostarda is brown-red in color with an elastic texture. It keeps for a long time and pairs wonderfully with aged cheeses.
The mostarda veneta
The mostarda veneta is prepared from quinces, apples, or pears. The fruits are candied in pieces in a syrup of white wine flavored with mustard. It has a granular and sweet consistency as well as a fragrant and slightly spicy flavor.
The Tuscan mostarda
The Tuscan mostarda is prepared with black grape must, apples, pears, and candied citron. Everything is boiled in Vin Santo with cinnamon, citron, and cloves. It goes wonderfully with boiled and roasted meats.
Pumpkin tortelli, amaretti and mostardaCourse: Pâtes, platsCuisine: ItalienDifficulty: Facile
In the culinary heart of Northern Italy, a dish captivates the palate and warms the soul as the chill of autumn descends. The ‘Tortelli di Zucca’, is a celebration of the season’s bounty. These are not just any pasta; they are pockets of joy, stuffed with the sweet, earthy goodness of squash.
This dish is a cherished tradition in the regions of Lombardy, specifically Mantua, and Emilia, particularly Reggio d’Emilia and Ferrara. As the leaves turn and fall, and the squash ripen to their full glory, kitchens across these regions come alive with the preparation of this beloved dish.
The ‘Tortelli di Zucca’ is more than just a meal; it’s a testament to the region’s rich culinary heritage, a symbol of the changing seasons, and a delicious reminder of home. As you savor each bite, you’re not just tasting pasta; you’re partaking in a centuries-old Italian tradition. 🍝🍂
- Tortelli dough
300 g of flour
3 eggs, or 6 yolks
- The filling
600 g Mantua pumpkin
100 g of Amaretti biscuits
150 g mostarda of Mantua
160 g of Parmigiano Reggiano
- Sage butter sauce
80 g of butter
- On a work surface, make a well with the flour and crack the eggs inside it. Beat the eggs with the fork, incorporating the flour a little at a time, until you see lumps of dough coming together. Carry on with your hands, kneading the dough until you have a smooth, elastic ball. Flatten it into a disc, wrap in cling film and leave to rest for half an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 160°C. Scatter the chunks of pumpkin onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake for 1 hour, or until very tender. When the pumpkin is tender, remove it from the oven and discard any water it might have released, then purée the pumpkin flesh until smooth in a blender.
- Add the crumbled amaretti, mostarda, the egg and grated Grana or Parmesan to the pumpkin purée, stirring to combine. Season with salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg. Cover with cling film and set aside.
- Divide the pasta dough into three pieces and roll them using a pasta machine. Cut out 5 cm squares and place a dollop of filling in the center, cover with another square and seal the edges.
- Cook the tortelli in a pot of boiling salted water, until they float to the surface. Melt the butter over low heat with the sage. Coat the tortelli in the sage butter. Serve the tortelli, add sage butter sauce and grated Parmesan.