The History of Mostarda

The term ‘mostarda’ comes from the Latin ‘mustum ardens’ and consists of a spicy preparation containing crushed mustard seeds, mainly used to prolong the shelf life of fruit and vegetables.
When we talk about mustard in gastronomy, we are usually referring to essential oils obtained from mustard seeds (mainly the white and black types); however, it is important to emphasise here that the origin of mostarda has little to do with ‘moutarde’, that is, French mustard. Moutarde is in fact a sauce made from vinegar, salt and mustard seeds, while our mostarda is a fruit-based preparation with the addition of sugar and mustard oil.

Mostarda initially started out as a luxury product: evidence of this can be found in some Gonzaga documents that testify to the presence of this food on the tables of the lords of Mantua, at banquets or dinners such as the one held by the Duke of Mantua. Its use spread among families in Lombardy in northern Italy, above all from the 1600s, thanks to the greater availability of sugar and mustard; it is therefore a characteristic product with a long history, which however, in recent times, has risked disappearing; today, fortunately, a process of rediscovery of certain ancient and traditional processes is under way and mostarda is now regaining popularity.
Throughout Italy, there are several products that make use of the name mostarda, but we will focus our attention on those products with recipes that make exclusive use of the essential oils of the mustard seed:

Mantuan Mostarda

Mantuan mostarda is a typical side dish of the Mantuan cuisine. It is of the highest quality, with a strong and spicy flavour. The main raison d’être of mostarda was the need to ‘extend the life’ of fruit or vegetables that would be unavailable when out of season. Its origins are ancient and can be traced back to the Ancient Romans, who used cooked must to preserve fruit. Mantuan mostarda is still one of the healthiest foods in a jar, capable of surviving without preservatives or colouring agents and whose production process is only completed once essential mustard oil has been added: this practice is agreed upon with the local pharmacist who, based on the desired weight and spiciness, establishes the precise number of drops to be added per kilo of processed product.

This production practice was traditionally created to use up fruit and vegetables that were no longer in the condition to reach optimal ripeness; in particular, children were tasked with collecting any unripe fruit that had fallen from the trees in the early and late summer due to heavy storms; all these hard products, unsuitable for human consumption, could have been fed to the pigs or chickens, but the family economics of every historical period required all available products, including fruit, to be usable throughout the year. For this purpose, the Mantuan Rasdores or Rezdores (which literally means ‘governor’ or ‘woman of the house’) would peel and cut this unripe fruit into thin slices, so that it was easier to select the nicest, healthiest parts. This particular practice gave rise to the ‘Mostarda mantovana a foglia’ (leaf-shaped Mantuan mostarda). Its traditional production process is described below: ‘Peel the carefully-washed fruit or vegetable well, then remove the non-edible parts and cut into slices. Next, blanch the products to be turned into mostarda, which contain a small amount of fructose, in special iron pans. After this first step, place everything in a container and add the right amount of caster sugar, stir and leave aside to rest for 24 hours. Strain the juice that has formed into a saucepan, thicken over a low heat for at least an hour and then pour it hot. Leave to rest for another 24 hours and, once again, strain the juice into a saucepan, let it thicken for an hour and pour it out again. Let it stand for another 24 hours and boil the juice and the slices of your mostarda together for at least 10 minutes. Then let everything cool down and add the mustard essence, stir gently and pour into clean, sterilised glass jars. Store the jars in a dry, dark place’.

One of the particular features of this mostarda is that the fruit and vegetables are caramelised. This caramelising process influences the structure, which becomes slightly softer, the colouring, which is more even, and the aromatic component, which is characterised by caramel notes and, at times, very light biscuit notes.
This type of mostarda is still produced today in almost every household in Mantua and is mainly made from Campanino apples, pears (all its cultivars), quinces, Mantuan melon, figs or other available fruit and vegetables, all mainly unripe.
In Lombard families, mostarda is customarily consumed as a side dish accompanying boiled meats, but it is also an important ingredient in the Mantuan recipe for pumpkin tortelli. Finally, to offset a hearty meal, it is customary, before serving dessert, to offer mostarda with well-ripened cheeses such as Grana Padano.

Cremonese Mostarda

Classic Cremonese mostarda is a traditional product that always includes mixed fruit, whole or cut into pieces, and the natural flavour of mustard: a perfect combination that is a triumph of flavours. Unlike Mantuan mostarda, in this type, the fruit is candied, not caramelised. Candying results in a product in which the fruit retains its original colour and can easily be distinguished in the jar; in addition, from a tactile point of view, the fruit is crunchier and tougher.
The first document to link mostarda with Cremona was the recipe ‘Pour faire moutarde de Cremone’, contained in the book ‘Ouverture de cousine par maistre Lancelot de Casteau’, printed in Liège in 1604. In terms of ingredients, it does not appear to differ much from today’s recipe.
Later on, in 1884, Giuseppe Gorrini’s ‘Manuale del cuoco’ (‘Cook’s Handbook’) contains a recipe for Cremonese Mostarda made with ‘apples, pears, ripe figs, dried peaches, citron pieces, … honey, sugar and mustard’.

Voghera Mostarda

The Voghera area has always been the ideal terrain for the cultivation of fruit trees and around the year 1000 AD, at the Abbey of Sant’Alberto di Butrio, located in the Staffora Valley in the Oltrepò Pavese re-gion, fruit was preserved using a preparation made with mustard and must. One of the earliest docu-mented mentions of Voghera mostarda dates back to 1397 in a letter from the duke Gian Galeazzo Vis-conti, then lord of the lands of Pavia, addressed to the podestà of Voghera: in it, the duke requested a ‘zebro’ (tub) of candied mustard-soaked fruit to serve with the roasts and meats at his table.
Today’s Voghera mostarda is made from a mixture of whole candied fruits (cherries, pears, apricots, peaches, white pumpkin, clementines) and sugar syrup (in place of the must used in the original recipe) and mustard.

Mostarda Veneta or Vicentina

The first written mention of mostarda vicentina dates back to the mid 19th century, and was found in a recipe book in Breganze. Today, this mostarda is produced according to the ancient recipe of the Veneto and Vicenza tradition, which requires the fruit it contains to be in small pieces, or even crushed. It looks like an opaque, fairly dense, light-yellow jam, made with white mustard, sugar and candied fruit. Tradi-tionally, it was served at Christmas to accompany mascarpone cheese or to add flavour to meat. Its sweet but spicy and, on an olfactory level, pungent taste is representative of the land’s memory and culture. The most popular Mostarda Veneta is made by cooking quince pulp – which is often ground – then adding a quantity of sugar equal to 50% of the weight. Once cooled, mustard essential oil is added; it is also often make it with pears.

Mostarda Nobile di Parma

This is a delicate mostarda made from an ancient type of pear grown since the 18th century in the area of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza: the Pera Nobile. The pear is called this because it was considered very valuable, and fit for consumption by the nobility. The Pera Nobile spread far and wide, especially in the 19th century, during the reign of Duchess Maria Luisa of Habsburg-Lorraine. Maria Luigia, as she was called in Parma, was a great admirer of this fruit: born in Vienna, and accustomed to the salty-sweet combinations typical of Austro-Hungarian cuisine, she wanted to introduce it as a filling for tor-telli and from that moment on it became an integral part of the gastronomic culture of the Parma area. Today, the flavour of this product still encompasses all the tradition of the local cuisine, a balance of sweet and sour that brings back to the palate the ancient flavours with which the Austrian culture con-taminated the Parmesan culinary tradition.
It is said that Mostarda Nobile di Parma should be tasted with one’s eyes closed while listening to ‘Zaira’ by maestro Vincenzo Bellini, the opera Duchess Maria Luigia chose in 1829 for the official open-ing of the Royal Theatre of Parma, now known as Teatro Regio; indeed, on that occasion this mostarda appears to have made its first appearance during the banquet held for the opening night.
It is produced in very limited quantities due to the scarce availability of the Pera Nobile.
Today it is served with mature cheeses such as Grana Padano PDO, it is used – as mentioned – to make tortelli and, finally, it is offered, in some variants, with the addition of spices such as saffron and chilli pepper.

In a nutshell, it should be noted that the recipes for mostarda from Cremona, Voghera, Mantua and the Veneto region are often mustardy and hot (depending on the amount of mustard used), but made with-out must, whereas in Piedmont and southern Italy, products referred to as ‘mostarda’ contain must but no mustard.

Mostarda: instructions for use and storage

Mostarda is not an easily perishable product and can be stored for about 5/6 months in the pantry without affecting its organoleptic characteristics; once opened, it should be kept in the refrigerator. As time passes, its spiciness may fade, as the mustard essential oil, which is highly volatile, tends to disperse, especially when the jar has been opened.

We recommend consuming it at room temperature and trying small pieces of each fruit and vegetable to appreciate the differences in structure, spiciness, sweetness and aromaticity, which, although slight – due to the prevalence of mustard oil – can still be perceived by the palate of an attentive consumer.