Cremona’s Mostarda and Piedmont’s Truffles
16 November 2016
Mostarda and Quince Jam
Cremonese mostarda, generally based on whole crystallised fruits, is certainly one of Cremona’s bestknown products in Italy and the world. This is the picturesque but very accurate description given by an English tourist, to whom it was served with a sumptuous plate of boiled meats:
“This is a dish of fruit candied in syrup, to which a dash of pepper and mustard powder has been added. It serves as sweet spice to the mild meats and sets them on fire, in a cool and lovely way, like moonlight burning on water. The fruit is luminously transparent, like semi-precious stones…. There are several cherries, unevenly rounded like antique corals; a green pear of the size of a walnut, with the black pips shining like onyx; a larger pear of the colour of rosequartz; a green fig clouded like a flawed emerald, a curved strip of pumpkin, reddish brown and veined like chrysopase, and the half of an apricot which could have been carved out of a topaz. They are almost too splendid to be eaten. Before starting, I ponder over their many-hued flambuoyance, and come to the conclusion that the colours of the Mustard of Cremona are those found in Veronese’s paintings. It is an exceedingly raffiné dish, a Baroque dish, sweet, full-bodied, glowing and tingling.”
– E. Templeton, The Surprise of Cremona
Although they contained no fruit, spicy sauces based on wine or must and mustard (the most probable etymology is that the name mostarda derives from “mustum ardens”, hot must, grape juice with the tang of mustard dissolved in it), appeared in the recipe books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such as that of Maestro Martino, which inspired Platina. The first recipe, Pour faire mostarde de Cremone (« To make Cremona mustard ») appears in a book published in 1604 : Ouverture de Cuisine by Lancelot de Casteau, cook of the prince-bishop of Liege. The Affaitati, rich Cremonese merchants who were very active in Flanders at the end of the sixteenth century, had close links with de Casteau. Among the ingredients mentioned are crystalised fruit, mustard, sugar and a vegetable colouring, turnsole, which would have given it a beautiful red hue. The recipe suggests combining it with roasts, tuna fish cooked in butter, and boiled dogfish. The art of making mostarda, practised by the spice dealers of certain cities in Lombardy, continued in Cremona during the subsequent centuries, and in the nineteenth century in grocery shops and chemists. At the beginning of the twentieth century mostarda began its transition to industrial production, with brands that are still active and famous today. In the sixteenth century Cremona and its area were also noted for production of jam based on quince, and even today both quince jam and senapata (quince jam flavoured with mustard) are produced in the area. Both are marketed in characteristic wooden boxes.
Truffles of Piedmont!
Already known and eaten at the time of the Sumerians (mixed with vegetables and legumes) and the Babylonians (IV-II millennium B.C.), truffles were also much appreciated at the tables of the ancient Romans, who copied the culinary uses made by the Etruscans. The Greeks also made use of truffles in their cooking and handed down the idea that the rare and valued fungus emerged from the combination of water, heat and lightning. On the basis of this theory, the poet Juvenal affirmed that the origin of truffles derived from a bolt of lightning hurled by Jupiter near an oak tree. Later, through the centuries, it was thought that truffles were the food of the devil or of witches.
But it was only during the last century, thanks to Savoyard cooks that Tuber magnatum pico, or the Alba white truffle, became known around the world and dominates the tables that make the news in the four corners of our planet. Today, this very expensive, completely spontaneous underground fungus, with a generally spherical form that is somewhat flattened and irregular, of quite variable sizes, is universally appreciated as a collective cultural asset. To date, no techniques for cultivation exist and the only one that can find them and dig them up – operations conducted throughout the autumn until the onset of winter – is the trifulau, accompanied by his patiently trained truffle dog, the tabui. The searching is done in the hillside woods of Langa and Roero, with just a little hoe or a spade, at night (because there is less distraction for the dog and the darkness protects from curious eyes), along the secret paths and hunting grounds that each trifulau guards jealously. The search, however, can also be simulated during daytime for groups on natural truffle-grounds to demonstrate the work of the trifulau and tabui. For the enthusiasts, on Sunday 15 January 2017 Canale d’Alba will hold the VII Regional meeting of truffle hunters and truffle dogs, organised by the Municipality of Canale and the truffle hunter association of Alba.
As soon as the tuber releases the explosion of its intense and characteristic aroma, the imagination immediately brings simple or refined preparations to mind to savour it, ranging in great versatility from hors d’oeuvres to sweets. Purists love to eat raw truffles, slicing them with special truffle shavers onto relatively neutral dishes, an essential condition to enhance perception of the articulate, intense and overwhelming perfume. Raw meat minced with a knife, fried eggs, fresh pasta dressed simply with butter or fonduta (warm cheese sauce) are perhaps the best examples of how stupefying truffles can be. The most creative palates are always ready to try them, for example, chopped in croquettes of ricotta cheese, in shaver-thin slices on a tepid salad of asparagus tips and celery or soft-boiled eggs, in a cream sauce over tender filet mignon or even chopped on frothy cups of zabaglione al moscato.
In Alba and its surroundings, the Truffle Fair is undoubtedly a tempting occasion to treat yourself to one of the extraordinary restaurants of Langa or nearby Roero. Among those that offer special tuber menus, you find the top at ‘Piazza Duomo’, in the main square Piazza Risorgimento, or the pop version at ‘La Piola’, on the same square. In Treiso, not far from Alba, every dish is more delicious if you admire the panorama outside the windows of ‘La Ciau del Tronavento’. If budget is not a problem, the luxury at ‘Il Boscareto Resort’, overlooking the hills of Serralunga d’Alba, will be the perfect setting for the sublime gastronomical proposals, not only from Piedmont. To explore the surroundings on the other side of the Tanaro, the ‘Enoteca di Canale’ – obviously in Canale – has a first class wine list. Other precious tips about restaurants are online here, but in general just follow your nose as you walk and a feast for the taste buds is assured.