With many variations, from fig to quince, the unmistakable flavors of northern Italy’s famous agrodolce fruit preserve crown meat, poultry, pasta, cheese and even seafood.
A favorite of Catherine de’ Medici, who placed a jar in her dowry trunk when she left to marry the king of France’s son in 1533, mostarda is a distinctive fruit conserve that mixes the intense spice of mustard with the sweet flavors of candied fruit. The first known written recipe for this condiment appeared in chef Lancelot de Casteau’s Ouverture de Cuisine in 1604, which called for finely chopped candied orange and quince peels—a substitute for the traditional grape must—added to a purée of mustard, sugar and rose water. Over the centuries the agrodolce flavor characteristic of mostarda has taken on countless variations. By the 19th century there were many cities with their own versions, and the varieties of mostarda made in Cremona became widely regarded as the most special because of the complexity of their ingredients. The 1875 publication of Il manuale del cuoco included the first instructions for making a more modern version of mostarda di Cremona—a recipe close to those found in Cremona today.
The origins of mostarda go back much further than the 19th century, to the ancient practice of pairing sweet and spicy flavors, like grape must and fruit, with mustard. There are fifth century references to a compote of quince, pomegranate and sorbus fruit, cooked together in grape must until the fruit began to fall apart. The word mostarda is traced to the Latin word ardens, or ardente in Italian. Ardente means burning, and it refers to the spice of the white mustard flour that was once added to the unfermented grape must, or mustum, to make mustum ardens. In French, this spicy conserve was called moût ardent, which then became moutarde, and was translated into Italian as mostarda. While its name may come from French, mostarda is entirely an Italian specialty, and like most of the country’s recipes, there are several regional versions of this preserve.
In Lombardy, the mostarda of Mantova is prepared with sliced quince, apple or local pear, and in the nearby town of Viadana, a spicier version is made with passacrassana pears, a winter variety with dense flesh. Puréed quince and pears, mixed with candied orange and citron peel, characterize most mostarda from the Veneto region, except for that from Verona, which calls for vegetables. Without mustard, however, mostarda is considered cognà, an ancient preserve traditionally found in Piedmont, made by cooking quince and pear in grape must with walnuts and hazelnuts. Grape must is still used in some recipes from Emilia-Romagna, where it is mixed with quince, pear and prune. The Tuscan version of mostarda includes apples, pears, candied citron mustard and grape must, as recorded by Pellegrino Artusi in the 19th century. Mostarda is also the name of a dessert in Sicily, a sweet and slightly sour cake made with grape must and flour that is seasoned in various ways.
According to tradition, mostarda is served in the fall, paired with bollito misto, Italian boiled meats. Today, mostarda is not limited to a single season and complements a wide range of foods. For the mostarda of Cremona, each fruit has its own dish: fig mostarda is served with herbed cheese and salumi; clementine mostarda with roast meats and fresh cheeses; while tome cheese, prosciutto cotto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are all ideal pairs for mostarda with pumpkin. With pear mostarda, serve Parmigiano-Reggiano and Felino salame, and for melon, serve culatello and fresh cow’s milk cheeses. The mostarda of Mantova, a fundamental ingredient in the local tortelli, is great with boiled white meat and medium-aged cheeses.
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