Michelle and I first experienced real Italian mostarda a few years ago when we picked up a strikingly beautiful jar of mostarda di pera at Les Petits Plaisirs d'Andrea (5235 Boul. St-Laurent) back when their location was on Laurier. We really had little idea what mostarda was at the time, but the slices of pear were perfectly suspended in the syrup and it sounded intriguing so we went ahead and splurged. When we got home and tried it we were glad we'd given mostarda a chance. The fruit flavors were so delicate, and the gentle warmth of the mustard gave the blend real depth. We were instantly seduced, and we found ourselves trying to stretch out les petits plaisirs of that jar of mostarda for months.
We’ve since tried a couple of different types of mostarda, including the most famous version, the version you’re most likely to find on the shelves of your better specialty stores (especially Italian ones), Mostarda di Cremona. We’d never tried to make any though. Then a wonderful confluence occurred this weekend. On the one hand, my continued adventures with Edward Behr’s The Artful Eater had led me to his rather fascinating chapter “On English and French Mustards,” which ends with a discussion of the work of Rosamond Man and Robin Weir on mustard and its effect on the flavors of foods of all kinds. There, amidst a brief overview of Man and Weir’s obsession which mustard (“The problem was not, as so many had asked, whether there was enough to write a book about mustard,” they're quoted as writing, “but to know how, and when, to stop.”), which involved everything from uncooked fruit to chocolate (whose flavor was “especially heightened,” apparently), Behr pauses to mention the Italian fruit-mustard combinations that have come to be known as mostarda, which stand out as being among the only dishes in the modern Italian repertoire to use mustard in any form, and which Behr speculates “must almost certainly [be] medieval survivals.” On the other hand, my continued adventures with Mario Batali’s The Babbo Cookbook had led me to his recipe for Bollito misto (an Italian “mixed boil” consisting of beef brisket, capon, sausages, and vegetables)—which Batali describes as being the most satisfying of dishes “during cold weather”—and the Cranberry mostarda recipe that accompanied it. Behr’s chapter inspired me to hustle on up to Olives et Épices to pick up the finest mustard seeds I could find so that I could start mixing my own mustards at home; Batali’s recipe inspired me to make yet another accompaniment for our regular cheese courses and to lay the groundwork for a future Bollito misto dinner.
I knew if I went to Olives et Épices that I'd most likely be getting the newest crop of mustard seeds—both yellow mustard seeds, most of which now come from Saskatchewan, which is by far and away the world's largest producer, and brown mustard seeds, which originated in the Himalayan region. But, as it turns out, I needed to go to Jean-Talon Market so that I could get another specialty required for the recipe from Olives et Épices' sister store, La Dépense: mustard oil. I’d tried a couple of local gourmet shops and a few local Italian specialty shops thinking that there must be some Italian mostarda makers in town who need their mustard oil, but all I got in return were puzzled looks, so I called La Dépense. Bingo. However, when I asked how much a bottle of mustard oil cost over the phone, I was surprised to hear that they were selling them for $2.00. I’d been figuring that something that was this difficult to track down had to come with a real price tag. When I got to La Dépense the next day I found out exactly why the price was right. Closer inspection of the bottle revealed a label that read “FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY.” I'm not sure I actually would have gone ahead and made the purchase given this warning, but luckily for me, Mr. Philippe de Vienne himself was in house to field my questions. When I asked him what this warning meant, he wasn’t too specific, but he mentioned that some claimed that mustard oil had a toxicity to it that sometimes made people sick and that a few years ago there’d been an incident involving mustard oil whereby numerous people had gotten sick and died from having ingested mustard oil. Ever since, countries like Canada (and the United Kingdom, apparently, because that’s where the brand of mustard oil that I was holding in my hands came from) had placed a ban on food grade mustard oil. The Indian community, however, continued to claim that there is nothing dangerous about mustard oil, he assured me, and they continue to use it in their cuisine. He added that anyone with any lingering doubts had only to heat the oil to the smoking point before use to guarantee that the oil would be perfectly safe for consumption. So I went ahead and bought that bottle of mustard oil, and I followed Mr. De Vienne’s advice, and, as you’ll soon see, everything turned out fine. What I learned later, though, was that the incident Mr. De Vienne referred to in passing was an absolutely massive controversy in India, where mustard oil has been held in very high esteem for hundreds and hundreds of years. Yes, there was an incident involving tainted mustard oil, and, yes, dozens of people actually died as a result, but the specifics of the case involve a struggle between local, homegrown, and inexpensive products (in this case, mustard oil), and their genetically modified, North American-grown, multinational-produced, and relatively expensive counterparts (in this case, soy bean oil), documented evidence of sabotage, and charges of corruption and corporate conspiracy. Given multinational capital's ever-increasingly rapacious outlook towards India, as well as its absolutely appalling record of corporate misconduct there in particular, these charges not only seemed credible, they seemed likely. If you need convincing, you might find Vandana Shiva's 2001 article from The Ecologist illuminating. I had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time I purchased my little bottle of mustard oil, I had no idea that mustard oil had become a rallying cry for a larger struggle in India, but in retrospect this seemed like an oil actually worth fighting for (even if mine was bottled in England and probably had very little or nothing to do with India).
Anyway, I raced my bike home from the market and got to work on my mostarda. The execution was very straightforward and the jam that resulted turned out perfectly, with a brilliant red hue to it and just the right amount of gel. Better yet, it tasted great—decidedly North American (cranberries are known as mirtillo Americano in Italy, after all), perhaps, but otherwise it had all the qualities one might have expected from a true artisanal mostarda: nice complexity of flavor, not overly sweet, excellent with meats, ideal with cheeses [such as the pecorino pepato pictured above]. Hell, it even made for an outstanding grilled cheese sandwich today for lunch.
2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar
1 lb fresh cranberries (I used 12 oz and the recipe turned out just fine)
3 tbsp Colman’s dry mustard
1 tsp mustard oil (as mentioned above, you may want to heat the oil till the smoking point, then allow it to cool, before using it)
2 tbsp black mustard seeds
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and 2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Add the cranberries and cook over high heat for 10 minutes, or until the cranberries begin to burst.
While the cranberries are cooking, place the mustard in a small bowl and add just enough water to form a thin paste. Add the mustard oil, black mustard seeds, and salt and pepper. Stir this mixture into the berries and cook over high heat until the mixture is thick and syrupy, 10-20 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. The mostarda can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. It can also be canned, if you like.
Prep time: well under an hour.
Yield: 3 cups.
Is the mustard oil absolutely necessary? Probably not. You could probably compensate for its omission by adding a bit more dry mustard. Is it dangerous? No. Is the resultant mostarda delicious? Yes.
Thanks once again to Edward, Mario, and Philippe.