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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

All About Mustard

Mustard is the oldest condiment known. No one knows who first used mustard to flavor food. Mustard seeds have been found in tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs and the ancient Romans used mustard seeds in some of their crude sauces. But mustard as we know it, a condiment sauce made from the seed of the mustard plant in combination with some liquid (water, wine, beer, etc.), goes back to the 14th century and perhaps even earlier.

The earliest reference to mustard in the Dijon region of France dates back to 1336, but we can assume that the early monks had developed the art of mustard making many years earlier. The ruling leaders of France enacted strict laws to govern the methods of making mustard and the ingredients allowed in its manufacture. Even today, French law regulates the making of mustard; only the brown or black seed is permitted in the manufacture of Dijon mustard. The French have brought mustard making to new culinary heights over the years. Today, Dijon mustard is the standard (for many) against which all mustards are measured.

The English developed their own style of mustard throughout the ages. It was originally made in homes or in monasteries, with little commercial activity involved. In the mid-1600's, the town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire became famous for its thick horseradish mustard that was the rage of English cookery. Shakespeare (a mustard lover himself) wrote of this famous mustard: "His wit's as thick as Tewkesbury mustard!" (Henry IV, Part II). For reasons we may never know, the mustard industry of Tewkesbury vanished nearly as quickly as it had appeared.

The greatest name in English mustard came upon the scene in 1804 when Jeremiah Colman began milling mustard seed at Norwich. Through the use of brilliant marketing techniques, Colman's mustard became the quintessential English mustard. Its most famous advertising campaign was "The Mustard Club," a whimsical fictitious club of odd characters (Master Mustard, Lady Di Gester, and its president Baron de Beef, to name a few).

The American mustard scene was different. We used very little mustard until the beginning of the twentieth century. Francis French, a New York spice merchant, developed a mild yellow mustard sauce that quickly caught the attention of the consuming public. French's "Cream Salad Mustard" became the national rage. At the same time, J.W. Raye was producing prodigious quantities of a similar mustard sauce for the sardine packing industry. Some claim that Mr. French and Mr. Raye entered into a "gentlemen's agreement" under which French would stay out of the then lucrative sardine market and Raye would stay out of the then speculative domestic household market. French's, of course, is America's largest producer of mustard but the Raye company has survived with its own line of specialty mustards.

Mustard in America has developed its own daring voice over the last thirty years. People have taken a strong interest in "gourmet" cooking. Chefs like Julia Child and James Beard turned America on to fine cuisine. Grey Poupon, American-made but decidedly French in style, took advantage of this new trend and brought a new kind of mustard to the American scene, aided in large part by a brilliant advertising campaign ("Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?).

Today, American mustards are as varied and numerous as the cuisines and restaurants across the country. Flavors such as curry, chocolate, merlot wine, cranberry, and even cheese may be found in gourmet mustards. They may sound "weird" but they taste great.

Mustard has always been a versatile and healthful (low in calories, with virtually no fat or cholesterol) condiment and fits in with today's active lifestyle. It is truly an international condiment, as countries put their own distinctive mark on the mustards they make.

The Mount Horeb Mustard Museum, in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, holds the largest collection of prepared mustards in the world - more than 4,600. The Museum also is home to hundreds of items of great mustard historical importance, including mustard pots and vintage mustard advertisements; the French's ad to the right is from the April 1936 issue of Good Housekeeping.

Did you know that there is even a day set aside to celebrate mustard? National Mustard Day is held annually on the first Saturday in August at the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb and in communities around the country.

Should you refrigerate mustard? Even though mustard is a very safe food and is not likely to grow anything harmful if left unrefrigerated, I recommend refrigeration of all mustards in order to keep the flavor brighter and fresher. Keep mustards tightly covered but if you discover that your mustard has dried up, do not panic. Add a little water and it will bounce back to life.

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