Mustard—A Hot Subject
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN FRANCE
“IT’S absolutely outrageous for two English ladies, citizens of the greatest empire in the world, to be reduced to eating their roast without mustard!” The Danes, who are among the world’s top mustard eaters, would sympathize with the frustration of the heroines of the French novel quoted above.*
The ancient Greeks called mustard siʹna·pi, “that which troubles the eye.” Perhaps they had in mind a diner who, having taken too much, finds his eyes awash with tears. The word “mustard” is derived from one of the condiment’s ancient ingredients, mustum (unfermented grape juice). The word can refer to either the plant, its seeds, or the condiment that can bring a hot flush to your face.
Although inoffensive when dry, the seed releases an irritant called allyl isothiocyanate when ground with water. This pungent essential oil, responsible for the hot taste of mustard, irritates the mucous membranes, thus bringing tears to the eyes of both gourmet and mustardmaker. No doubt this explains why yperite, a chemical weapon used in World War I, came to be called mustard gas, though it contained no mustard at all.
A Mighty Mite
The innocent-looking yellow flower hiding this fiery temper can easily be mistaken for rapeseed, or colza. Mustard and rapeseed both belong to the family Cruciferae, said to contain up to 4,000 species, about 40 of which are mustards. The most widely used are white mustard (Brassica hirta), Indian or brown mustard (Brassica juncea), and black mustard (Brassica nigra), which gives off a particularly virulent essence capable of causing blisters on the skin.
When growing wild, black mustard thrives on stony ground and alongside paths and rivers in Africa, India, and Europe. It also flourishes on the green hillsides of the Sea of Galilee, in Israel. When properly cultivated, it matures rapidly and can grow to the point of attaining “in the Orient, and sometimes even in the south of France, the height of our fruit trees.”—Vigouroux’s Dictionnaire de la Bible.
Surprisingly, the black “mustard grain” itself is exceedingly small. In Jesus’ day it was the tiniest of the seeds commonly sown in Israel. (Mark 4:31) It has a diameter of about one twentieth of an inch [1 mm], justifying its use as the smallest unit of measure in the Talmud.—Berakhot 31a.
The striking contrast between the tiny mustard seed and the large full-grown plant added meaning to Christ’s teaching about the growth of a “kingdom of the heavens” that came to provide lodging for the birds of the heavens. (Matthew 13:31, 32; Luke 13:19) Christ also used a stimulating illustration to highlight how far even a minute amount of faith will go, stating: “Truly I say to you, If you have faith the size of a mustard grain, . . . nothing will be impossible for you.”—Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6.
French Mustard Production
Even though the favored French black mustard was also cultivated in Alsace, eastern France, it was the city of Dijon, in Burgundy, that came to be known as France’s mustard capital. Here, mustard was grown on soil regularly enriched by charcoal production. The resulting potash in the earth yielded mustard seeds with an extra-special bite.
After the second world war, in the face of changing agricultural methods and stiff international competition, mustard cultivation eventually tapered off in Burgundy in favor of colza. Today, France imports 95 percent of the mustard seed it needs, and 80 percent of that comes from Canada. While the name Dijon mustard indicates a manufacturing process and not its place of origin, 70 percent of the French condiment industry is nevertheless still centered in Dijon. Recently an effort has been made to revive the cultivation of mustard in Burgundy.
A Long History
In powder form, like pepper, or as a condiment, mustard already whetted appetites in ancient times. The Romans used it to spice up fiery sauces, such as garum (mackerel intestines and heads in brine) and muria (tuna in brine). Apicius, an extravagant Roman gourmet, concocted his own recipe consisting of mustard seeds, salt, vinegar, and honey, with almonds and pine kernels added for banquets.
From the Middle Ages down to the 19th century, homemade mustard gave way to a cottage industry. In France the corporation of the mustard-vinegar makers developed recipes, ensured proper hygiene, controlled the market, and fined offenders. Sold in liquid form or in pastilles to be dissolved in vinegar, mustard complemented fish just as often as meat. In the 19th century, Jeremiah Colman, an Englishman, virtually dusted the vast British Empire with his mustard powder, which was mixed at mealtimes in water, milk, or beer.
In time, factory production replaced the cottage industry, increasing output considerably. In 1990, France, the top European producer, made about 70,000 tons of mustard and 2,000 tons of various other condiments.
Modern Production Methods
Mustard’s bite depends as much on production methods as on ingredients. The seeds are sorted, washed, dried, and blended in proportions kept strictly secret. Sometimes the seeds are ground before being soaked in cider, vinegar, or verjuice (sour grape juice) for up to 24 hours. Black grape sediment is used to make violet mustards. All the ingredients are crushed—lightly for traditional mustards—and then separated in a centrifuge to remove the husks and to increase the concentration of volatile oil. Whether it turns out to be strong or mild depends on how thoroughly the paste is sieved.
Mixing takes out any air bubbles that might oxidize the paste, which then matures for 48 hours in a vat. Here it becomes spicier naturally, while losing its bitterness. The addition of coloring, flour, or seasoning either tones down or intensifies its bite. Then a variety of aromatic flavors are added: traditional (Roquefort, tarragon), exotic (banana, curry), or sophisticated (cognac, champagne). Meaux mustard’s pleasant aroma is the combination of no less than 11 fragrances.
Packaging is essential to complete the process, for air turns the paste brown and heat causes the evaporation of its volatile oil. So it is always best to store mustard in a cool, dark place. Plastic or glass mustard jars, often decorated with specially designed labels, have replaced the fine stoneware, earthenware, or porcelain pots of the past, which are now mainly to be found adorning the displays of museums and private collections. Craftsmen paid great attention to the outside appearance of their pots, aiming for original designs that “enabled them to be distinguished at a glance.”
A Modest Plant of Many Uses
The imposing pots that once decorated pharmacies contained mustard powder for therapeutic use. In view of its properties in counteracting scurvy, no Dutch ship put to sea without some in its hold. Mustard was used in baths or as a poultice.
The leaves of the white mustard plant are eaten in salads and also still serve as silage. The edible oil extracted from the seeds does not easily turn rancid. In Asia it supplements industry with fuel for lighting and also flavors many a dish.
This humble country flower has found its way into several proverbs. In Nepal and India, to “see mustard flowers” means to be dazed after a shock. In France, to “get mustard up your nose” means to get angry. Whatever form it takes—flower, condiment, seed, oil, or powder—mustard can put spice into your life.
Le Roi des montagnes (The King of the Mountains), by Edmond About.
[Picture on page 23]
Mustard comes in many varieties