So I thought I’d turn the tables on you and talk about something completely unexpected. Today we go to the left bank of the Po River, in the heart of Lombardy or Lombardia, a region in northern Italy where the city of Cremona nestles. Cremona, a city most noted for the violin making of Guarneri and Stradivari, is also known for making the finest MOSTARDA or agrodolce fruit (sweet and sour) of its kind. Although, different forms of Mostarda can be found elsewhere in Italy, here in this northern city, theirs is the most complex in ingredients and flavor.
What is Mostarda? We are all familiar with chutney, fruit conserves, and spiced fruit. MOSTARDA can be simply reduced by definition to a kind of Northern Italian form of any of those which pairs the savory with the sweet, and when added to fresh fruit becomes the most elegant and ethereal of concoctions. France has its moul ardent or moutarde, but MOSTARDA is a totally Italian creation. You’ll find it to be a totally different substance from region to region and also with different fruits used. Simply put, it is a mixture of fresh fruit combined with spices, one of which is mustard. It is most often offered in the fall, and you’ll soon see the reasons why.
A little history: It is said that the infamous Catherine de Medici placed a jar of MOSTARDA in her dowry when she left Italy to be wed to the son of the King of France in the 1500’s. Now you must admit, the stuff had to be pretty good to be offered up for this event. Actually, there are historical references to this fruit mixture that go back even further to the fifth century. The word itself comes from the Italian ardente or burning which relates to the hot sensation of mustard on the tongue.
The Cremona thing: The original versions or recipes for MOSTARDA from Cremona keep the fruits whole. They are candied in a way, but also have the sharp mustardy flavor which permeates the fruit and the syrup. When you see actual MOSTARDA from Cremona, it is usually presented in a bowl with the shiny fruits glistening, whole, and almost transparent like one might imagine sugar plums. Sometimes each fruit is served on its own and in its own bowl. This is the form that you will see most often in jars. Outside of Cremona, you will find it in all sorts of forms. Some are found in mashed or chopped form. The style of Cremona presents like no other, but for my taste and use, I prefer to serve it with the fruits sliced. It is attractive – you can see the fruit pieces – but it is a form that most people can relate to using.
Whatever do you do with it? Ahhh! Now there’s the fun! You can do so much with this lovely stuff. As I mentioned earlier, MOSTARDA is most often served in the fall. Why? This is the time of year when your attention turns to roasted meats and foods of a heartier nature. Spicy cooked fruit is the perfect accompaniment to roast pork or game especially as well as chicken, beef, or lamb. Served alongside the meats, it eliminates the need for heavy sauces or gravies, although you can certainly use them as well. I like to put some of the fruit on salad greens with a light dotting of a nice aged Balsamic Vinegar and use it as a salad course. Another way Italians use MOSTARDA is with savory cheeses on a plate at the end of a meal. You can also use it as an appetizer or add it to a salumi plate. Parmigiano- Reggiano, Montasio, and goat cheeses – aged or not are perfect pairings with MOSTARDA. The beautiful aged goat cheese or chevre that you see in these photos is from cheese artisan extraordinaire, CalyRoad Creamery, Sandy Springs, Ga. Theirs is unsurpassed in my opinion and offers flavor and consistency I have not found elsewhere.
What fruits are used? Be inventive – use what you like. Although, I don’t think I’d use bananas. For authenticity, I like combinations of mangoes, pears, apples, figs, plums, peaches, and dried fruits like apricots and cherries.
Keeping: MOSTARDA keeps a couple of weeks in the refrigerator. You can preserve it using your usual canning method. You can also freeze it in containers to pull out when you need it. That is what I do. It is very convenient to pop a container out of the freezer on a cold fall or winter night when you’re sharing a great wine and you’d like to dress up that hunk of cheese that looks lonely on the plate.
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Makes: About 4-5 cups
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Any combination of fruit is fine: mangoes, pears, apples, peaches, plums, figs, dried fruits like apricots and cherries
4 Purple Plums
1 c. Dried Cherries
1 c. sugar
1 c. water
5 tsp. dry mustard
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 c. White Balsamic Vinegar
For pears and apples you can use a peeler to remove the skins. To remove skins on peaches, plums, figs, etc., drop them in boiling water for a couple of minutes.
Remove them and let them cool. Then the skins just pull right off in your fingers. Discard the skins.
Slice the fruit in 1/2 inch pieces.
Dissolve the dry mustard and cinnamon in the white balsamic vinegar.
Put the sugar and water in a pot or pan. Stir. Add mustard mixture.
Bring to boil and cook until sugar is dissolved.
Add all of the fruit to the pot. Stir gently. See a couple of different mixtures of fruit here.
Let the mixture of fruit cook about 2-5 minutes. No more. See 2 different assortments of fruits simmering above.
Remove from heat.
Now either proceed with your preserving/canning method or spoon fruit into plastic containers and add some of the liquid from the pot to each container. Discard remaining liquid. Freeze the containers you plan to use later.
This MOSTARDA is really tasty and wonderful to serve with your fall dishes of roasted or grilled meats, on salad, or with savory cheese as is described in the above text. Enjoy this Northern Italian specialty and surprise your friends and family who probably haven’t heard of it. For a little more adventure – it is “blow your mind” delicious with foie gras, or any game dish. Salute the new fall season with this versatile dish!
PARLA COME MANGI!
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Food Photos By Tommy Hanks Photography