From Mustard Madness
I first learned about mostarda in 2016 when poet Gabrielle Myers offered a recipe for an Italian prune plum and fennel pollen mostarda for this magazine. While setting the recipe on the page, I found myself thinking about how recipes, with their staggered lines, self-determined grammar, and palpable evocation of sensual experience, are somewhat like poems, at least to a lover of both artistic expressions.
Mostarda dropped out of mind until 2019, when on traveling through the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, I found myself in the small centro storico (historic center) of Mantua, a small city well known by opera lovers and readers of Shakespeare. In window after Mantuan food shop window I saw huge glass jars stuffed with glistening fruits suspended in mustard-laced syrup. It became even more clear that Mantua (pronounced Mantova, if you’re a Montovani) is ground zero for mostarda when I found that mostarda Mantovana (a mostarda made with apple or quince) is a key ingredient in the town’s legendary pumpkin-stuffed pasta, tortelli di zucca Mantovani.
On returning to Berkeley with a recipe for that dish, I found it nearly impossible to replicate, largely due to the unavailability of mostarda. I tried making my own, but couldn’t get the strong mustard-y taste. Market Hall offers a ravioli similar to the tortelli di zucca Mantovani on their winter deli menu, so there had to be some kind of Mantovani-style mostarda hidden among the kitchen supplies, but since customer demand dictates what goes on the retail shop shelves, I found no mostarda Mantovani to buy.
Poet Myers suggested I talk to Oakland Chef Paul Canales, who has similarly sought to create a Lombardy-style mostarda to complement charcuterie plates at his restaurants. He had learned that the Italians achieve the strong mustard taste by using a mustard seed essential oil that the FDA bans in the United States, so he’d been settling for chilies to get the spicy punch. If you turn back to page 49, you can review the discussion of mustard seed’s erucic acid, which is the reason for the ban, and blessings upon the FDA for protecting us tender beings from so many things we don’t know much about. However, the upshot is that I still don’t have the authentic mostarda recipe that I had hoped to share with you in this collection. Instead, I’ll leave you with two mustard poems from Gabrielle Myers.
—Cheryl Angelina Koehler