On Mostarda

Perfect with Meats or Cheeses

Apricots and cherries as mostarda di frutta (Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard flavoured syrup)
Newedel, Karl / Getty Images

Not too long ago, a friend wrote to say how happy she was with the volume of fruit flooding the markets, and to say she wanted to surprise her mother-in-law with a jar of mostarda. Did I have a recipe?

Lest you wonder at my friend, Mostarda is one of those words translators call a false friend -- though what Italians call Mostarda does contain mustard, it's only distantly related to the yellow stuff that gets slathered over hot dogs and such in the US (and is served with fries in cheap eateries in Paris -- much better than ketchup).

Italian mostarda is fruit preserved in syrup that gains quite a kick from a healthy jolt of powdered mustard seed and is one of the standard condiments served with boiled meats in northern Italy (see the ultimately boiled dinner, fit for a king).

Though you'll find it from Piemonte on through the Veneto and down into Emilia Romagna, the best-known variation is that from Cremona (Mostarda di Cremona), which is also produced commercially. According to Italian food scholar Antonio Piccinardi, the word mostarda derives from the French moustarde, which in turn derives from mout ardent, fiery must, which was made by adding powdered mustard seed to unfermented grape must and cooking it down to produce an invigorating condiment.

To be honest, I'm not sure why the passage through French is necessary in this case; jams made by boiling down grape must, for example, Piemonte's cugnà, are fairly common in northern Italy. Fresh from the pot they tend to be somewhat sharp in addition to being sweet and work well as condiments, especially with cheeses. The idea of spicing something like cugnà further by adding ground mustard seed seems fairly obvious, as does the addition of other fruit to the pot; from thence the idea of preserving the other fruit in syrup rather than concentrated grape must is again fairly obvious, and we find ourselves with the classic Mostarda di Cremona.

But where does it come from? I have a feeling it's quite old. In modern Italian cooking, there aren't many sweet entrees or sweet sauces served with entrees. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, on the other hand, sweeteners were hard to come by and consequently prized; dishes that made lavish use of them were primarily enjoyed by the aristocracy. Mostarda of the kind made in Cremona, with its sweetness and its lasciviously voluptuous appearance, would have been perfect in this role.

What, you wonder, do Italians call the condiment known as mustard in the English-speaking world? Senape.

And now for a few recipes. We'll begin with Mostarda di Carpi, from a town in Emilia Romagna that still includes grape must in its recipe, continue with Mostarda di Uva e Fichi, mostarda made from grape must and figs, continue with a couple of Lombard variations made with syrup rather than must, Mostarda di Mantova, made with tart apples and pears, or quinces, and Mostarda di Cremona, made with mixed fruit, and finish with a Dalmatian mostarda made with quinces and honey.