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Mosto cotto, vincotto, saba, and sapa are just some of the names you could otherwise call cooked grape must—the pressed grapes destined for winemaking. You could even describe it as grape syrup, but it's so much more than that.
This age-old condiment is made, in some form, in various regions throughout northern and southern Italy, bringing together two ancient traditions: winemaking and not letting anything go to waste.
The grapes (red or white, depending which region you are in) are squeezed of all their juice, which is boiled slowly, sometimes for hours, until the liquid reduces to about a third of its original volume and is the consistency of thick syrup. It's strained again, bottled, and kept for months—even years. Like its relative, wine, the syrup gets better with age.
Mosto cotto's flavor is sweet, but can be also pleasantly tangy, slightly tannic (like a dry red wine), and reminiscent of dried fruit. Some compare it to thick, syrupy aged balsamic vinegar, but it's more mellow than that. In Preserving Italy, Domenica Marchetti describes mosto cotto as having "notes of prune, raisin, fig, cherries, and spice."
And it's not only made of grapes. In southern Italy, particularly in Puglia and Sardinia, a similar condiment is made from the gluts of other late summer or early autumn foraged fruit, namely figs and prickly pears.
In many Italian regions, this thick, dark syrup (or golden or red syrup, if made with prickly pears) is used in place of sugar—which wasn't always easy to come by or affordable—or honey in desserts. Traditional Sardinian biscuits called tilicas are made with long strips of pastry, encasing a filling made from thickened prickly pear sapa. In Puglia, they make cartellate, deep-fried pastry smothered in syrupy vincotto. From Tuscany to Sardegna dark-hued, rustic, country cakes are made from mosto cotto or sapa. During the wine harvest season, the syrup is also often made into pudding by simply cooking the freshly made mosto cotto with some flour, semolina, and ground almonds or starch, pouring this into little molds and refrigerating until set.
Pellegrino Artusi includes a recipe for sapa in his 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well and describes it as nothing more than a “grape syrup," made with white wine grapes that are pressed and slightly fermented, before being boiled until thick and syrupy. He notes it's loved by children in the winter, when you can drizzle the sapa over freshly fallen snow, like an improvised sorbet.
While, traditionally, sapa and mosto cotto were a product of thriftiness and poverty, today, ironically, the elegant, dark bottles are expensive to buy. However, it's also very easy to make at home.
Mosto cotto couldn't be simpler: squeeze the fresh fruit (a food mill or juicer is extremely useful for this), pour the juice through a fine mesh sieve or muslin cloth to remove the seeds and skin, and boil it very gently and slowly until it reduces and thickens. As it cools, the mosto cotto will thicken further, so be careful not reduce it too far. Bottle the syrup and keep for as long as you can before using it (some age it for 24 months), although it will be hard to resist.
Drizzle it over fresh ricotta, ice cream, or yogurt. Eat it on freshly baked bread or toast. Spoon it over grilled stone fruits and use it as a syrupy topping for simple cakes.
But it's not only fantastic on sweets. Because of the complexity of its flavors, mosto cotto is also wonderful in sauces, marinades, or dressings for savory dishes. Add it to a cheese platter (it's particularly good with strong or aged cheeses), to be dipped into and mopped up. Use it in marinades or sauces, where it can add depth to a roast leg of lamb. Substitute it for balsamic vinegar (like in this salad with grilled pear, arugula, and goat cheese) or as a replacement honey in your next honey mustard dressing.
You can even make a refreshing tonic with it by mixing a spoonful of sapa in water (imagine what you could do with cocktails). Don't forget the ice!
- 4 pounds grapes (best kind would be wine grapes of any variety, or concords, alternative fruits are figs or prickly pears)
What would you drizzle/dip/slather mosto cotto on? Tell us in the comments below!