I had quite the epiphany a couple of years ago when I first read John Dickie’s highly readable account of Italian food and culinary history, Delizia. In the book’s second chapter, after describing Palermo’s totemic spleen-filled focaccia (otherwise known as pan ca meusa), he writes, ‘to eat in Sicily is to appreciate the dizzying variety in Italian food, and to understand why the expression la cucina italiana non esiste – ‘Italian food does not exist’ – has become a truism.’ This statement about the variety of local eating traditions in the country did not strike me though. By then, I had lived in the country for several years and had travelled in the country extensively. Italy’s culinary diversity was no mystery to me. In fact, I could proudly say that the two local cuisines I knew best came from those very two geographical extremes which Dickie compared to make his point – namely Sicily and Piedmont.
Rather, another statement he makes a couple of paragraphs later rang true: ‘… saying that Italian food does not exist is also a hazardous generalisation’. In other words, those micro-cuisines characterising the country are not unrelated. Many foods are common to several regions in Italy, like polenta in the country’s north. Some – in various shapes and forms, of course – can be found all over the country, like pasta. Conjugating a meal according to the courses of antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno and dolce is another custom existing all over Italy. Sure, that typically Italian phenomenon of campanalismo (i) and exchange of often food-based insults such as polentone (‘polenta-eater’) and mangiafagioli (‘bean eater’) suggest otherwise at times. It would be wrong though to deny that an ‘Italian’ culinary culture does not exist.
It is my hope that you will begin to appreciate what unites those micro-cuisines more with Cucina Conversations, a new collaborative project I’ve begun with some Italian food bloggers I’ve been lucky enough to connect with since starting this blog. Every month, as part of our roundtable, we will come together and share a Italian recipe or food story linked to a set theme. Each monthly topic will reflect what is currently taking place on the country’s seasonal, religious or secular calendars.
This month, we’ve decided to start a conversation about one of the country’s most important agricultural events of the year – la vendemmia, or the grape harvest, which takes place in September. Marialuisa, a member of my extended family from the town of Maierato in Calabria, writes about marmellata di zibibbo, a jam made with a grape from the Muscat family. Francesca, an Italo-American living in Rome, has a cake recipe called torta della vendemmia. Versiglia resident Daniela explains the finer points of making a favourite sweet focaccia-like bread of mine from her adopted region of Tuscany, schiacciata all’uva. Houston-based Italo-American Flavia talks about a ring-shaped biscuit I was lucky enough to discover while on holiday in Lazio last month, the jaw-breaking fennel-flavoured ciambelline al vino. My fellow antipodeans, Lisa (an Italian ‘by marriage/adoption’ from New Zealand who now lives in France) and Carmen (a Piedmont-born Italo-Australian in Melbourne) will bring you recipes for sorbetto all’uva (grape sorbet) and salsa agresto (a condiment made with the juice extracted from unripe grapes) respectively. The variety of recipes we will introduce you to attests to Italy’s culinary diversity. All our food stories, however, are united by the presence of vitis vinifera, otherwise known as the grape, which has been cultivated in the country for several millennia now.
The second we decided to launch our roundtable with this theme, I knew exactly which grape-based preparation I wanted to share with you. I saw it often as a child at that time of year when my Sicilian grandparents’ suburban backyard-grown grapes were ripe. Soon after nonno Eugenio had spent much of the day pressing his homegrown uva in a wooden pigiatrice, a plate containing a mouse-brown tinted mixture with roughly chopped nuts peaking through its surface would appear on nonna Sarina’s granite-topped kitchen bench. Not long after the mysterious substance had set, my mother, zii and nonni would devour this odd-looking plateful. ‘Chi bonu!’ they said in Sicilian. For many years though, I refused to partake in tasting the unattractive ‘slop’ everyone else seemed to like so much. With its lumpy surface and its dull colour, it did not conform to my idea of what a sweet should be. It was only when I began to take a greater interest in food and how it was made (in my case, comparatively late, my late teens/early twenties) that I started to appreciate the modest delicacy – mostarda d’uva – nonna lovingly made from the must extracted from nonno’s grapes every autumn.
Just to clarify, the mostarda from my nonni’s backyard vendemmia is very different to the better-known mostarda di frutta made in the northern Italian towns of Cremona and Mantua. The latter, in its traditional form at least, are whole fruits preserved in a syrup made with mosto (grape must) and spices. My nonna’s mostarda, on the other hand, is a citrus and spice-infused pudding-like treat made with boiled-down and thickened mosto and a sprinkling of nuts.
It’s still common in Sicily for people to leave their mostarde to set in fancy crest-bearing terracotta moulds for a long time, first out in the sun, to air dry, then in a cool, dark place. This process turns them into into a hardened, candy-like paste, much like the Spanish quince paste membrillo or its Sicilian cousin, the luxurious medieval dessert, cotognata (ii).
Nonna never undertook this step. Perhaps she preferred to consume it fresh. She didn’t use the terracotta moulds either. Her must-based concoction was left to set on a simple dinner plate. Whoever wanted to eat it afterwards could help themselves to a slice. I fear many Sicilians may take issue with me for not providing a recipe with instructions for using these moulds and drying out my mostarda. However, I can’t help thinking that my nonna’s unpretentious way of serving this treat was more in keeping with the very modest means of the much of the island’s once largely peasant workforce. If heraldic cotognata was once the feature of an aristocratic banquet in autumn, then sugar-free but no less sweet mostarda was the treat the latifondia‘s (iii) grape harvesters enjoyed, from whatever eating vessel they had on hand, during the same period.
The mostarda recipe below is based in part on possibly my favourite book on Sicilian cuisine, Mary Taylor Simeti’s Pomp and Sustenance: 25 centuries of Sicilian Food. An American who has resided on the island’s northwest since the 1960s, Taylor-Simeti began to examine the island’s food culture and history more closely after her husband inherited the family farm. A work of almost encyclopaedic scope, it is by far the most complete work on Sicilian cuisine available in English. I have made a couple of changes though to better reflect the flavour of my nonna’s mostarda, not to mention the practicalities involved in making this dessert in my urban kitchen.
There’s the addition of spices, which are absent in Taylor-Simeti’s version. Unlike in the rest of Sicily, it is common in the island’s northeast (where my nonni come from) to infuse the simmering grape must with cinnamon and cloves. There’s the clarification method too. Many Sicilians are still attached to an ancient way of doing this. A couple of spoonfuls of woodash (ideally from the burnt vines the grapes came from or even a mandarin tree branch!) are added to the freshly-pressed juice, brought to boil and left to rest overnight. The next day, after the ash has carried the sediment to the bottom of the pot, the must is filtered in careful ladlefuls. This rustic method definitely has its appeal. It’s just not practical for me though to burn grapevines and mandarin tree (the latter don’t even grow in Piedmont) branches I don’t have! I’ve therefore opted to filter the must in a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth right away. Unless you have ready access to a grapevine or a mandarin tree, I suggest you do the same.
As for the variety of grape, any wine grape works well. My nonna always used whatever grapes happened to be ripening in her backyard. Like Taylor-Simeti, I quite like muscat (both black varieties like Hamburg and white ones like Marialuisa’s zibibbo) but do feel free to use another grape too. Chances are, you’ll really enjoy experimenting with different grape varieties and the unique aromas (not to mention colours!) they all bring to this humble yet delicious treat. The dramatic fuschia tint I obtained from using a Piedmontese variety of red Malvasia grapes was just stunning!
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
2 kg ripe wine grapes (or 1.5 mL fresh grape must) (iv)
zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
80 g cornstarch
100 g roughly chopped roasted nuts (blanched almonds or walnuts both work well)
Wash and dry grapes. Remove carefully from stems and pass through a food mill in batches. Discard seeds and skins which will have accumulated on the top of your food mill’s disc. Filter must through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. Pour filtered must into a heavy-bottomed stainless-steel saucepan and bring to boil. Lower heat to a gentle boil and remove any foam which rises to the top with a slotted spoon. Remove saucepan from heat. In a small bowl, dissolve corn starch in just enough cold water. Add the cornstarch mixture bit by bit at a time to the saucepan and whisk energetically to avoid the formation of lumps. Put back on low heat and add cloves, cinnamon stick and lemon zest. Continue to stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mostarda is very thick and has reduced its initial volume by up to two-thirds. Remove zest, cinnamon stick and cloves. Mix in the nuts. Pour mostarda onto a assortment of fruit or bread plates (you’ll need about four to six depending on their size). Leave to set and cool. Store in the refrigerator. Remove from refrigerator an hour before serving. Serve at room temperature.
N.B. I was so enthused about this month’s Cucina Conversations grape harvest theme that I had to write a companion piece for my friends at Italy Magazine about grape must syrup. If you’re on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, you may wish to follow the conversation there too. Find us with the hashtag #cucinaconversations!
(i) Here is a link about this distinctly Italian phenomenon.
(ii) Cotognata, unlike mostarda, is made with sugar. This was once a very expensive commodity, despite the existence of domestic sugar production for several hundreds of years after the Arabs introduced the sugar cane crop to the island in the 9th century. Carmen, whose husband is of Sicilian origins, has written about cotognata. Here’s a link to her post about this delicious preserve.
(iii) I latifondi (latifundia in English) were the landed agricultural estates which dominated Sicily and a great part of the southern mainland from Antiquity. They were abolished by the Italian government’s land reforms in the 1950s and 60s.
(iv) If you’re lucky enough to live in a wine-making area, you can often get this from a producer at harvest time.