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The Italian Condiment Your Cheese Plate Needs Pronto

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Mostarda is made differently in almost every region of Italy. In Sicily, you'll find a dense treat of prickly pear juice thickened with flour and placed in decorative moulds; in Piedmont, you'll find a delicious, sweet jam of autumnal fruits like Barbera grapes, pears, and hazelnuts, typically paired with cheese; in Venice, it's a smooth, spicy jam eaten with creamy mascarpone. The earliest written recipe for mostarda, in the medieval cookbook Liber de Coquina, instructs the reader to boil grapes until the liquid is reduced to a third or a quarter of its original volume and add ground mustard seeds. It's ideal for eating with pork and marinated freshwater fish, the recipe concludes.

But the most famous Italian mostarda comes from two parts of Lombardy, in Italy's north: from Cremona, where whole, mixed fruits are candied, spiced, and eaten with boiled meats; and Mantova (Mantua), where hot and spicy sliced quince or apple—what sets this mostarda apart is that it is made with just one single type of fruit—is briefly cooked so that it holds its shape and still has bite. It is typically eaten with cheese (or slipped into pumpkin tortelli, a favorite local tradition for Christmas Eve).

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Traditional mostarda takes 4 days to make—but there's only 30 minutes of active time.
Traditional mostarda takes 4 days to make—but there's only 30 minutes of active time. Photo by Emiko Davies

The name mostarda comes from the Latin mosto or “must,” the juicy results of wine-pressing—which usually includes skin, stems, and seeds along with the grape juice itself. In fact, many traditional mostarde (plural) are made in the autumn, during the grape harvest, and include other autumnal fruits in a thick, sweet-spicy jam. This grape must jam, spiced with mustard, is what gave our English word for “mustard” its name.

Mustard, or rather, its essence, is the special ingredient in Lombardy's mostarde. It is this hot and spicy, wasabi-like, nose-tingling, lingering scent that makes it a mostarda—not grape must. Mostarda Mantovana, Mantua's version, has been made essentially the same way for centuries. I recently met with Italian restauranteur Anna Maria Eoclidi, whose restaurant, Pasta Emilia, is a little gem of northern Italy in Sydney, Australia. She recounted her aunt's recipe for mostarda mantovana to me, and I discovered it is the recipe to use, the most traditional, barely changed in hundreds of years, except for the use of fruit—quince is most typical, but nowadays, many use apples, as they are more easily found year round.

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Mostarda Mantovana

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Makes 25 ounces
  • 2 pounds (1 kg) quince (or apples), on the underripe side
  • 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar
  • 1/2 lemon, sliced (optional)
  • mustard essence, as needed (10-20 drops per kilogram of cooked fruit)
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The quince (or apples) are peeled and chopped into thin pieces. Sugar is poured over them and they are left to sit for 24 hours. The next day, the liquid produced by the macerated fruit is poured into a saucepan, boiled for 5 minutes, then poured back over the fruit and left to sit another 24 hours. The liquid is strained again, boiled, poured over the fruit and left a further 24 hours. This is repeated again, and on the fourth day, a mixture of all the fruit, plus the syrup, is boiled together for about 10 minutes. Once cooled, the third and final ingredient—the mustard essence—is added, and then it's bottled. It takes 96 hours, but the active cooking is less than 30 minutes.

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In Italy, the mustard essence (essenza di senape)—not to be confused with mustard oil—is bought in a pharmacy, not a food store. It comes in a tiny bottle and is sold by the drop; you only need about 12 potent drops per kilogram of cooked fruit. It's not without reason that the bottle has a skull and crossbones on it. It's an extremely dangerous, volatile essence when not used carefully. You must use it in a well-ventilated place; just looking at it, you can feel your eyes burn and your nose tingle. Luckily those few drops go a long way. Place it in the fruit only once cooled, then close the jars right away. You can begin eating the mostarda immediately but don't wait too long—about 6 months after bottling, the distinct, intense mustard scent begins to lose its punch, even if you never open the bottle.

Mostarda is perfect for a cheese platter.
Mostarda is perfect for a cheese platter. Photo by Emiko Davies

Outside of Italy, mustard essence is probably difficult, if not impossible, to find, considering that it is a banned substance in the US for its intense toxicity. (Our intrepid community members managed to find a solution, though.) Fret not: There are other ways to replicate a similar mostarda—you can save the real deal experience for your next trip to Italy. Plus, not all the traditional recipes call for Mantua's potent mustard essence. In Maestro Martino's fourteenth century cookbook, De Arte Coquinaria, he instructs readers to soak mustard seeds in water for two days, then grind them into a paste with almonds, vinegar, verjus, and breadcrumbs. In the 19th century tome Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Pellegrino Artusi describes a Tuscan version of mostarda where cooked grapes, apples, and pears are spiced with white mustard (sinipis alba) powder dissolved in warmed vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine). Marcella Hazan recreated mostarda when she emigrated to the US by mixing the fruit jam with Colman's mustard for eating with mascarpone (the Venetian way). Here on Food52, Antonia James tells us how to make mostarda without a recipe (and without mustard essence—instead, using mustard powder mixed with vinegar, white wine, or both). Either way, mostarda is the perfect accompaniment to a cheese and charcuterie platter, to serve alongside glasses of wine, Italian aperitivo style, or as a condiment for grilled or poached meat.

Tags: Italy, Regional Italian Food, Lombardy, mostarda, mustard fruits, jam, preserves, pickling