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Italy’s ancient fruit preserves: the history of mostarda 🏺

Pliny the Elder’s bones were tested by a youth spent in war among the Germanic peoples, his skin mottled with scars and signs of military life. He found relief when he walked thoughtfully and meditatively among the cultivated fields in the Roman countryside. Pliny stopped near a tree around which a vine filled with large sweet berries had grown. A vine grown in the Etruscan way. The sun was high on that autumn afternoon, Pliny picked a few grapes, held them up to the light, ate them, and noted the shape and characteristics of each berry. In the midst of the fields there were men gathering clusters in large containers. The scents of fruit and cooked must soon mingled together. This year Pliny turns 2000 years old, but the tradition of cooking grape juice to reduce it to syrup is much older.

In Pliny’s time, the countryside was cultivated orderly close to the large urban centers. Despite the hard work in the fields and legions, these men followed a predominantly vegetable-based diet, even the richest patricians and emperors. Eating little and in a controlled manner was an important cultural tradition for them, but they were also able to enjoy a rich and complex cuisine where sweets were mostly made of fruit, a delightful symbol of prestige.

The farmers of the ager cultivated the vine according to techniques learned from the Etruscans and Greeks. In addition to wine, which as one can imagine required complex processing for the time and various corrective interventions, grapes were also used as a sweetener, alongside honey, a tradition that has been passed down to this day, although not always in an obvious way (I will talk about this later). One of the most popular uses of grape must, to prolong its preservation, was in fact to cook it.

Even today, cooked must is the basis, for example, of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, in some remote farmhouses in Modena and Reggio Emilia, some enthusiasts still cook must in large cauldrons inherited from their grandparents. Even then, 2000 years ago, the must collected from these vines twisted around the trees (an article on the so called married vines will arrive shortly) was boiled, spreading the scent carried by the autumnal breezes in the air. This must was then used, among other things, to preserve fruit. During this period, cooked must coexisted with mostarda, the latter being an appreciated ingredient in spelt sausages and some vegetables, while the syrup obtained from reducing grape juice already had multiple purposes, such as a preservative for fruit.

Under the banner of the Visconti’s blue dragon over a millennium later, in the medieval period, cooked must reappears once again used as a condiment and preservative, this time enriched by apothecaries with ground and boiled mustard seeds, another ingredient of ancient origin that made it an appetizing spicy condiment to use on meats (no, not yet paired with cheese, “It is ideal for marinated pork and tench” cites the Liber de Coquina, which also suggests enriching the must with cloves, ginger, cinnamon). It was a spicy must, in short, “mustum ardens”, present at that time in the kitchens of House Gonzaga in Mantua in northern Italy and then spread throughout the known world. Let us not forget the commercial power of these two ancient Lombard families.

It is in this late medieval period that mostarda appears as we know it today. The term will re-emerge in French and English attributed only to the element that enriches the must, the “mustard” seeds. Up there this term would then become forever identified with mustard (which, in Italy is called senape), also worked as it was in that period, boiled (in vinegar) for days to remove the bitter tones. It is interesting to note a note dating back to the Venice of the 14th century, where the fat that dripped from the roasts was added to this sauce.

De musto et mustarda: sic para mustum pro mustarda conficienda: accipe mustum nouum, fac eum bullire quod quarta pars solum remaneat uela. Et caue a fumo et spumetur bene. Deinde, semen senapi cum predicto musto distemperando tere fortissime. Postea, pone in barillo, et poterit conseruari per 4 menses. Et ualet pro carnibus porcinis uel tincis salsatis. Mustum poteris seruare pro aliis ferculis. Liber de Coquina, XIV sec.

In the 15th century, Maestro Martino mentions a white mostarda made with almond paste, mustard, agresto (sour grape juice) or vinegar and breadcrumbs, and a red mustard that contained raisins. Interesting is the reference to a third dry mustard, “da cavalcata” (“suitable for riding”), to be kept in saddlebags during journeys and then revived when necessary.

A few centuries pass and Christopher Columbus sets foot in the future Americas. The Middle Ages academically ends here and scattered mentions of mostarda appear, but it is still difficult to understand exactly what is meant by this term, apart from the name, there are no references to the processing.

Persutti accedant primo, bagnentur aceto,Apponatur apri lumbus, cui salsa maridet,Tripparumque buseccarumque adsit mihi conca,Rognones vituli lessi sapor albus odoret,Insurgant speto quaiae, mustarda sequatur!Sic vivenda vita haec: veteres migrate fasoli!Teofilo Folengo, XVI sec.

L’assenza vostra ci corrompe ogni piacere, et non sinit esse integrimi; però tornate ed arete mustarda, e ogni bene che con voi ne portaste.Francesco Berni, XVI sec.

We finally arrive in Carpi in the Renaissance period where grape must and mostarda are finally united in marriage (the famous “mostarda fina” on which I absolutely want to write an article in the future, but the documentation is scattered and difficult to find). Mustard begins to detach from the saba and will still appear with more or less shaded differences with the term “savor” (from saba, precisely, the cooked must) in the Bolognese and throughout Italy south of Lombardy, think of Sicilian mostarda, thickened with flour. Remaining in Emilia-Romagna, at the end of the 19th century Artusi mentions it as an excellent product of Savignano on Rubicone, for example, but the popularity of this condiment will remain linked to Lombardy and the territories of House Visconti and House Gonzaga influence as candied fruit immersed in a sugar and mustard syrup. It becomes, in effect, a “conserva”.

It is worth making a quick note at this point about the city of Modena and its “mele campanine” (Campanine apples). The characteristic Campanino becomes the most distinctive element of Mantuan mostarda. Let us not be surprised, Modena had a brief period of Mantuan domination and anyway the relations between House Este (let us think of Isabella d’Este) and Gonzaga have always been very close. At an enogastronomic level, Modena is closer to Mantua than it is to Rimini or Cesena.

We have as we have already said arrived at the 1800s, the century of Pellegrino Artusi. In an early 20th century text, the mustard of Cento is mentioned… I have found nothing about it, but if anyone has any information, please write me an email or share the research on the Facebook group of historical gastronomy enthusiasts or on the Telegram group.

In this period, the documentation is richer and more generous. The mustard contained in the “mostarda”, it is said, was used to cover some defects of meats and preparations, it is not difficult to think that this has always been one of its main uses.

Essentially, there are three different types of varying quality, also derived from the increasingly abundant presence of sugar that replaces the cooked grape must and honey: those based on reduced wine or cooked must are the cheapest and can be clarified with egg white (we remember the controversy over “vegan” wines), in the middle range are those based on honey (“mele” in old italian), and finally the best, based on sugar. With the spread of sugar beet in the Napoleonic period, these too will become a popular product, detached from court gastronomy. The historian Marc Bloch, as we all know today, wrote a seminal text on the production of jams (and yes, the differentiation of citrus-based marmalade is recent history).

Two centuries ago, the production of these motarde, apart from the sugary base, was nevertheless similar. There are fascinating descriptions of early 20th-century procedures that describe fruits dried in the sun instead of candied. The mostarda was cooked on the edges of large cast-iron stoves where it had to simmer gently and be frequently stirred and skimmed so that the juice would not stick to the bottom. Interesting are the packaging techniques of our fathers, who filled the jars starting from the fruit that remained on the surface and therefore less cooked, adding that from the bottom on top, techniques of peasant wisdom that are still repeated today in large kitchens.

The Cornucopia Experience

Few traditional food products recall the flavors of the Middle Ages like mustards, with their sweet-spicy contrast to be paired with fatty and savory dishes. That of Campanine apple mostarda is probably the most emblematic representation of this sauce (or preserve), which combines a specific variety with a traditional processing.

A small quantity of organic mostarda, which I have selected for authenticity and research of the product from the field to the laboratory, will soon be available for purchase in the e-commerce section. Products with this adherence to Cornucopia principles have been chosen to experience firsthand the history of our food and wine heritage, the same taste experiences as our ancestors.

Follow the website, page, or channel for updates on a Cornucopia product that I am developing precisely these days, a product that combines the history of mostarda with that of the Campanina variety.


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