Hot and zingy, creamy and mild, smooth or grainy, there’s personality aplenty with this fiery condiment. Clarissa Hyman tells the culinary story of this much-loved ingredient
What is it?
Beef and mustard is the fabled, flagship food of Ye Merrie Old Englande. As Kate in The Taming of the Shrew says, ‘tis a dish upon which she loves to feed'. And so say all of us, for one without the other is like romance without love. It's become a more intricate affair as mustard has evolved; English, French, yellow, brown, white seeds, black seeds, herby, sweet, mild, smooth and flavoured from honey to horseradish. They all add piquancy, aroma and depth, to the food they accompany.
Mustard is made by mixing the roughly crushed seeds of the fiery little plants with vinegar or sauce. The ancient Romans used unfermented grape juice or ‘must’ from which its name derives. Medieval European courts often employed a mustardarius, an official who supervised its cultivation and preparation.
The plant is part of the cabbage family and there are three main species. Exceedingly pungent black mustard is difficult to farm but is the traditional seed for condiments. White mustard shares its Mediterranean origins but the seeds are large, pale yellow and relatively mild. Brown mustard (aka Indian mustard) is somewhere in-between, widely used in Indian cooking, as an oil.
French mustards are made from brown and black seeds; those containing whole or slightly crushed ones have become as popular as the finely ground.
English mustard is usually made from the brown and white varieties blended with flour and turmeric or similar. Fiery Tewkesbury mustard, spiked with horseradish, once had a reputation as the finest in England, and probably made it possible to eat the ever-salted meat of the Middle Ages with more relish than would otherwise have been possible. However, mustard-eating really took off in England in the 19th century when Colman’s of Norwich started marketing a vivid yellow mustard powder in those iconic tins for the masses. Famously, the firm’s fortunes were founded on those dabs that were left on the side of the plate.
The old-style coarse-grained mustards, such as Pommery’s Moutarde de Meaux, are made from a mix of black and white seeds. They're sometimes described as ‘à l'ancienne’ and traditionally come in stoneware jars with red wax tops. These have a mild, nutty taste. Dijon mustard, which also contains white seeds, can vary in colour, from grey to chrome yellow. It's medium strength with a cleaner taste of mustard that brings out the natural flavour of the food it accompanies.
Dark Bordeaux mustard was once the most popular of all in the UK: an imitation of it still is to be found as a murky-tasting condiment in many at steak houses when the diner is offered the choice of ‘English or French’. It got its name from the port from which it was exported. Mild in flavour and suitable for eating with foods that need a pickle-like boost, such as sausages and salami.
Sweetish German mustards are generally along the lines of the Bordeaux type. American mustard, made with white seeds, is associated with the mellow yellow relish that is slathered onto hot dogs and into pastrami sandwiches.
The acidity of mustard is said to help the digestion of fatty foods, and is also supposed to be good for rheumatism. Mustard plasters were once a popular treatment for all manner of ailments, although as Rosamond Man and Robin Weir, authors of The Mustard Book, comment that its efficacy as an aphrodisiac is doubtful – especially if you follow an 18th-century suggestion to apply poultices to the affected area.
English mustard is, naturally, the one to use in British recipes: in sauces for fish and vegetables, Welsh rarebit and Glamorgan sausages. Gubbins sauce, made with butter, English mustard, tarragon vinegar and cream, is delicious with grilled meat.
The recipe for traditional French vinaigrette always includes mustard, Dijon, of course, as does a mustard mayonnaise to serve with cold poultry. Add a round of mustard butter to fish, steak, lamb cutlets or serve a beurre blanc à la moutarde with chicken or steamed vegetables. The venerable sauce Robert is a grand match for roast pork and goose. At one time herrings with mustard sauce was a classic, but now gravlax with a mustard and dill sauce has taken its place. Lapin à la moutarde with Dijon, cream and herbs is still a definitive dish of the French kitchen.
Make a devilled glaze for grilled chicken wings with Dijon mustard, treacle, brown sugar, soy sauce, anchovy paste and cayenne. Or add a little mustard to a stuffing of sautéed onions, breadcrumbs and herbs to go with roast chicken. Spread young lamb cutlets on each side with a touch of mustard and olive oil and sprinkle with a little salt and black pepper before briefly grilling.
Leeks, onions and garlic all have a great affinity with mustard. The spice of the latter enhancing the sweetness of the former. Bake the leeks with mustard-flavoured stock or wine dotted with butter.
To make an Austro-Hungarian spread to serve with black bread or crackers, mash soft and blue cheeses with mustard, anchovies, caraway seeds and pepper.
How to showcase it
Gordon Ramsay’s maple and coarse-grain mustard glazed gammon is rendered extrasucculent in taste as it is spectacular in looks. The mustardy glaze includes Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce, with extra spicing from cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, coriander seeds, bay leaves and cloves. The chef also suggests a mushroom, sherry and grain-mustard sauce to set off a big T-bone steak.
Honey, lemon and mustard grilled salmon with Puy lentils and beetroot makes a light, vibrant fish dish. A squash, mustard and Gruyère gratin provides a great vegetarian centrepiece. Or try James Martin’s chunky neon pickle of shallots, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower florets, cucumber and capers to use up mustard powder.
In a wordless exchange of messages in 334 BC, Darius III of Persia is said to have sent Alexander the Great a bag of sesame seeds to symbolise his vast army. In return Alexander sent an even larger bag of mustard seed to signify not only the number of men under his command but their strength. Now, that’s a two-fingered gesture that really cuts the mustard.
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