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A jar of homemade mostarda, photographed by a Flickr user from Italy. Mostarda, a traditional northern Italian condiment, is a friend of cheeses, especially those produced in the mountains.

Food and Drink

Mostarda: A friend of cheeses

Making this traditional Italian condiment is the perfect fall activity

BRATTLEBORO—Many years ago, early in my cheese-writing career, I was working as the house copywriter for a specialty cheese and food shop in New York City.

In addition to writing descriptions of every cheese sold at the counter, I also wrote descriptive and alluring copy for every other product on the shelves.

This meant I had to eat everything in the store, especially when I had no prior knowledge of a particular food item.

Life was so hard back then.

One day, my co-worker Jorge, who handled all the incoming orders, called me down to check out these mysterious little octagonal glass jars that had shown up in a pallet of stuff from Italy.

The jars, with labels that said “mostarda” and a bunch of other Italian words, came to us from Emilia-Romagna, where Parmigiano-Reggiano is made. The contents looked like fruit preserves, but some were made of weird things — to us, at least — like crabapple, watermelon rind, and green tomato.

Jorge and I examined the jars. I chose the one that seemed the least bizarre. “Mostarda di Pere.” Pear mostarda. I like pears.

As I twisted the shiny red cap from its glass host, a jarring (no pun intended) yet intriguing aroma emerged: sweet, yet pungent.

I dipped my finger into the jar. (Don’t tell.) I tasted the straw-colored, sticky contents. Rather than sharing with my curious friend, I absconded with the mostarda back to my desk.

The sugar was evident but not cloying, making it very much unlike duck sauce. And it wasn’t like the mustard I knew, either. It wasn’t salty or acidic. It was sweet, bright, and a little spicy, and it had clean, uncomplicated, balanced flavors.

It was exceptionally delicious. Sort of like what you get when you stir the hot mustard into the duck sauce in the Chinese restaurant. (I’m not the only one who does that, right?) But better. Much better.

* * *

I pictured enjoying the mostarda with aged, high-altitude cows’-milk cheeses that have their own sweetness and pungency: Swiss Gruyère, extra-aged French Comté, Italian Fontina Val D’Aosta. Maybe even serious Provolone, like the Valpadana.

I did some research, and it turns out I was onto something: mostarda — a traditional northern Italian condiment — is a friend of cheeses, especially ones produced in the mountains. Mostarda is also traditionally served with boiled or roasted meats and with salami.

Each region makes mostarda using a slightly different recipe. Some methods demand using only one fruit per batch, and the texture is mostly smooth with some small chunks of fruit. Others employ the misto — mixed — method, combining an array of whole or coarsely chopped fruits.

What they all had in common, however, was sugar, mustard oil, and a little vinegar.

The other thing they had in common, at least in this country: those little jars were expensive. Other than sneaking home from work with open sample jars we could not sell, pricey mostarda wasn’t in my future.

Could there be another way?

* * *

At a recent excursion to one of our local farm stands, I lustily eyed the quart containers of Concord grapes. They are as delicious as their season is short, so I wasn’t leaving without some.

But a quart of grapes is a bit much to finish before they go bad, even for someone as gluttonous as I. As I drove home, stuffing small, black, juicy globes into my face, the ecstasy of it all provided me with an epiphany: make Concord grape mostarda! I could save myself the expense of paying for those precious eight-sided jars and avoid giving the remaining, rotting grapes to the compost bin.

I looked online, found a bunch of fussy recipes, and decided to do what I always do when cooking: wing it, and keep it simple. I distilled a bunch of complicated recipes into one easy one.

It took me three tries to cook the grape mostarda down to the texture I wanted — slightly thinner than jam, but thick enough to coat a chunk of cheese — but it was worth it. Some recipes I found after making mostarda suggest making the condiment over a few days, allowing the ingredients to meld in between steps, so perhaps I was onto something.

I am very happy with the way it came out. In addition to pairing well with many cheeses, it tasted delicious with my friend Laura Austan’s noodle kugel. I also mixed some into mayonnaise and added toasted walnuts to make a lovely dressing for chicken salad.

Since my initial foray into mostarda-making, I also made a batch using apples. I can’t tell you which ones, because (similarly to how I buy tomatoes when they are in season) I tend to stuff a bag with one of every variety, then forget which is which by the time I get home.

If taking such risks with food isn’t your thing, I suggest choosing apples with a good balance between sweet and tart, and ones that cook down nicely. Some favorites easy to find in Windham County are Cortland, Empire, McIntosh, Northern Spy, and Roxbury Russet. If you can find any at this late date, throw in a few of my favorite apples: the Macoun. (By the way, these were named after Canadian pomologist William Tyrell Macoun, and all reports state he pronounced his surname “MacCowan.” So should you with the apples.)

Making mostarda is the perfect autumn culinary activity: the fruits harvested now are ideal. Concord grapes, pears, apples, plums, quince, cherries, and the last of the green tomatoes will all make delicious mostarda. (I imagine even winter squash like pumpkin and butternut will make a fine version. Bake, steam, or boil until soft before adding the other ingredients and cooking further. Try it and let us know.)

The house will smell wonderful, and you’ll have something delicious to eat with all those high-fat, high-protein foods your body begins craving as the light changes and the temperature drops. Plus, you can use the fiber.

And, of course, the cheese!

* * *

Regardless of which fruits you use, mostarda pairs with any blue, from earthy Colston Bassett Stilton to creamy, bright Chiriboga blue; two-year Grafton cheddar; cave-aged Emmentaler; aged sheep- or cows’ milk Gouda; rich, sweet, winter-milk Parmigiano-Reggiano... the list goes on.

Stick with richer, more flavorful cheeses, because otherwise, the mostarda will overpower it. Avoid delicate, fresh goats, or milky, grassy cheeses like Camembert — they tend to clash.

And a smear of mostarda on the inside of the bread makes the best grilled cheese you’ve ever had.

At Thanksgiving, you’ll create an impressive buffet by adding a bowl of mostarda — maybe even still warm from the stovetop — to the table to serve with your beautiful roast turkey. If turkey’s not your thing, consider serving mostarda with roast pork or a big baked ham.

Just save some for the sandwiches!

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Originally published in The Commons issue #279 (Wednesday, November 5, 2014). This story appeared on page C3.

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