The truth behind the French mustard crisis – and what you can do about it

·5 min read
The Maille Mustard shop Dijon Burgundy France
The Maille Mustard shop Dijon Burgundy France

France is in turmoil because of – zut alors! – a mustard shortage. A drought last year in Canada, the world’s largest supplier of mustard seed, wreaked havoc on the harvest. Supplies to France dried up, disastrous given that Canadian seed constitutes some 80 per cent of the main ingredient for French mustards, including classics like Dijon and grainy Moutarde de Meaux.

Prices are up 25 per cent, and some shops are limiting customers to a single jar. Le Twitter went into a frenzy when it was reported recently that a nefarious customer in a small town had been round twice. It’s enough to raise the hackles of our Gallic neighbours – or, as they might say, ‘la moutarde me monte au nez’, which roughly translates as ‘that gets right up my nose’.

There have been calls for France to become self-sufficient in mustard seed. Burgundy, where Dijon mustard comes from, grows some but not nearly enough, and their crops have been ravaged by frost and pests. Happily, this year’s crop is a third higher than usual.

Good news. I love all mustard, but Dijon is irreplaceable, partly because it is a brilliant emulsifier, adding not only flavour but magical binding qualities to mayonnaises and dressings. Its mellow taste is unique: a dollop alongside steak gives just enough tongue-tingle to cut through the richness. Cook with it and there’s another transformation. The pungency is lost, and in a sauce or casserole it mellows to a soothing unguent providing just the right subtle note of bitter-savoury to round out the other flavours.

The heat hit we get from adding mustard to dishes is actually an alarm call from the body. Oil compounds in the mustard are created when water is added, which reactors in our nose and mouth sense as a threat, warning us of potential danger with streaming eyes and constricting nasal passages. We have the same reaction to horseradish and wasabi. Sounds bad, but just as a scary film can be fun, so is a little controlled danger in the form of a dollop of mustard. Spicing up your life, literally.

Mustard on the map

Dijon

Made with ground brown mustard seeds and vinegar, a mellow mustard that can still give a punch. Grey Poupon is a kind of Dijon made with white wine rather than vinegar, so it can be a bit punchier than regular Dijon. (Named after nineteenth century moutardier Maurice Grey, who invented the steam-powered mustard seed mill, and his business partner Auguste Poupon.) Great for salad dressings and sauces.

Heat rating: 3

Wholegrain

Crushed whole mustard seeds, generally black, brown and white, macerated in vinegar. Sometimes mustard powder is added to give a creamier texture. Adds texture to sauces and salad dressings, and is fantastic in sandwiches.

Heat rating: 1-3

English

A mix of yellow and brown mustard seeds, from around 21 per cent mustard (for Colman’s) up to 39 per cent for Tracklements Extra Strong, with turmeric to give it the characteristic deep yellow colour, as well as sugar, salt and vinegar. Some brands (including Colman’s) use wheat flour as a thickener. Making your own with mustard powder (pure white mustard seeds, ground) will give you the spiciest flavour. The best mustard to eat with the Roast Beef of England, but also excellent with ham.

Heat rating: 4-5

German

Sweeter, and close in style to a Bordeaux mustard. Bavarian mustard has a dark colour from brown sugar, while mustard from Düsseldorf tends to be paler and more sweet-sour. Excellent with frankfurters and the right condiment for a salt beef sandwich.

Heat rating: 2 for “mild” to 4 for “extra scharf”

Tewkesbury

A mixture of mustard and horseradish, originally sold dried in balls, to be grated onto food. Good with roast beef, but also cuts through the richness of salmon beautifully.

Heat rating: 3 to 4

American

A runny mustard, cooked to reduce the heat and deep yellow from turmeric, sometimes with sugar added. So mild that mayonnaise is sometimes suggested as a substitute. The only condiment to zigzag over a hotdog.

Heat rating: 1

Chinese

It’s worth scouring Asian supermarkets if you want serious punch-in-the-nose heat. Chinese mustard is made with hot brown mustard seeds, or look for Japanese Karashi mustard, which includes horseradish for a real sinus-tingler. Good with Asian food or for jaded palates.

Heat rating: 5

Making your own mustard

  • The seed can be one of three varieties. Milder yellow mustard seeds (sometimes called white mustard seeds), or brown or black mustard seeds which are hotter.

  • For wholegrain mustard, smash seeds of your choice in a pestle and mortar, then keep grinding as you gradually add liquid and a pinch of salt.

  • For smooth mustard, blitz in a high-powered blender, or just use mustard powder.

  • The liquid you choose will affect the final flavour. For the mildest mustard use hot water; for a low burn, use lemon juice or vinegar; for a mellow flavour try cream or milk; and for a serious kick, cold water.

  • Allow the mustard to sit for 10 minutes for the heat and flavour to develop, before eating.

  • Store mustard in the fridge – whether homemade or not – to keep it spicy.

Mustard alternatives

Wasabi

A pungent Japanese root, real wasabi is rare and expensive. The stuff in tubes is delicious, but it’s essentially grated horseradish dyed green. Dried wasabi is available, but nothing beats fresh: you can buy UK grown roots from thewasabicompany.co.uk. It needs grating just before eating as the heat starts to reduce in minutes.

Horseradish

Our very own nose-tickler, horseradish grows wild here but you’ll need to be able to spot the broad green leaves and be ready to dig to find the roots. They sometimes appear in greengrocers, shrink-wrapped and looking like a long wonky parsnip. While grating them for sauce is an eye-watering task (open the windows) it makes an unmatched sauce mixed with crème fraîche. Ready-made sauces tend to be banal in comparison, although Tracklements strong horseradish cream has a good kick.

Chilli sauce

Capsaicin, responsible for the heat in chillies, elicits a different reaction to mustard, horseradish and wasabi. It sets off pain receptors in the mouth and throat, rather than the nose and mouth. Nonetheless, in the absence of mustard, chilli can have a similar brightening effect on food, though with a fruity-sweet rather than nutty-savoury back note.