It’s that time of year when grocery stores in Italy are stocked with a dozen different shapes and sizes of glass canning jars and bottles, and many Italians spend the weekend chopping and seeding fruit to make a variety of different sweet and savory preserves. The canning season peaks in summer, as tomatoes ripen for canned sauce (or, for the purists, whole peeled tomatoes), and peaches, plums, apricots, cherries, and other stone fruits are at their best. But Italians preserve well into the winter, cooking up pots of orange and lemon marmelade and jams made from quince and persimmon to give as Christmas gifts or brighten up breakfast.
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Italy has a strong tradition of preserving everything from meat to vegetables, rooted in millenia of poor rural agricultural economies where frugality made the difference between surviving the winter months and leaner seasons. Though most Italians now live in cities and no longer have a kitchen garden or orchard, come summer you will still see customers purchasing cases of fresh seasonal fruit or ripe San Marzano tomatoes at the local market to make homemade preserves just like their grandparents. Though most of this goodness is limited to family consumption, there are also excellent artisan and farm preserves which can be bought and samples at local gourmet shops and farm stores.
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Here are a few to seek out and bring home:
Marmellata is a blanket term in Italian for any fruit preserve that is spreadable, but for the specific type of bittersweet preserve made from citrus fruit that we know as marmalade, head to southern Italy. The Amalfi Coast and Sorrento are famous for their sfusato lemons, known for their sweet pulp and fragrant rind, which make a particularly flavorful marmalade perfect for tarts or simply spread on chewy Neapolitan bread with butter. Oranges from Sicily are also famous: the rich, deep red blood oranges are often too sweet for marmalade, but the island’s Navel, Ribera, and Valencia oranges are perfect for preserving and marmellata di arancia and candied peel from local oranges is featured in many Sicilian pastries.
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Italy has excellent artisan jams from north to south, featuring the best local fruit. In the north, you can find pear and frutti di bosco, or berry jams in the fall, and quince and apple preserves in the winter. The Padan plains of the Po River valley are famous for their vast orchards, and much of Italy’s cherries, peaches, plums, apricots, and nectarines come from here; the warm coastal stretch between Rome and Naples is also perfect for stone fruits, as well as strawberries and persimmons. Italians love quality jam, which, like most Italian dishes, is rarely spiced up with ingredients beyond the basices: fruit, pectin, and sugar…the quality of the fruit is such that the preserves can stand on their own. The best way to sample quality jam is on a traditional crostata, the rustic jam tart which is one of the most beloved desserts in Italy both at home and at family-run trattorie.
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Italians often use marmellata to indicate jelly, as gelatina di frutta is more a type of homemade jello. Though not as common as jam, there are a few gourmet jellies that Italians pair with certain types of pungent, aged cheese: grape, prickly pear, quince, and rose petal are the most common.
Uniquely Italian, mostarda is a northern Italian specialty made with candied fruit preserved in a syrup flavored with mustard oil or powder. Traditionally, mostarda was served as an accompaniment to bollito misto, or mixed boiled meats, but today is often part of a cheese course. The most common is Mostarda di Cremona, which includes a variety of whole and chopped fruit, but you can also find Mostarda di Mantova made with heirloom sour green apples called mele Campanine, and Mostarda Vicentina made with pureed quince.
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Want to try your hand at putting up preserves, Italian-style?
has some excellent traditional recipes for canning anything from marinated artichoke hearts to a variety of marmellate!