The Amazing Mustard Seed


| August/September 1993





For many people, mustard is the ­yellow stuff that’s slathered on sausages; the word may bring to mind an oft-repeated television commercial for Grey Poupon. Some cooks are resourceful enough to prepare their own from the dry powder that’s available at grocery stores, but most of us simply select our favorites at the ­supermarket. Many of us experienced mustard in childhood as a plaster for treating chest colds—until Vicks came to our rescue. And to some people, mustard is just a weed. Nearly everyone has a relationship with mustard, and its pungent taste and stimulating irritation have been with us down through the ages.

Mustard Recipes:

Whole-Grain Mustard
Jalapeño Mustard
Tarragon Mustard 

An Ancient Condiment

The use of mustard seeds as food has been recorded as far back as the Han Dynasty in China (206 B.C.–A.D. 221), and these spicy seeds probably were a popular condiment well before the beginning of recorded history, in Europe as well as in China. They were eaten whole with meats in ancient Egypt, and the Greeks and Romans sprinkled the powdered seeds on their food. Some historians believe that Roman garrisons introduced their customary use of mustard to England; others maintain that mustard seed arrived there in the droppings of migratory birds. Most likely, both stories are true. In the Bible (Luke 13:19), reference is made to a mustard seed that grows into a tree, as a seed of black mustard (Brassica nigra) certainly might in the climate of the Middle East.

The medieval French prepared culinary mustard by pounding the seeds with honey and either vinegar or must (unfermented grape juice, or “new wine”). The word “mustard”, or moutarde in French, derives from the Latin mustum ardens, “burning must”. Mustard’s immense popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages may have resulted partly from its effectiveness in disguising the taste of spoiled food, but that can’t be the whole explanation: guests at a fete given by the Duke of Burgundy in 1336 are said to have consumed 70 gallons of prepared mustard in one sitting.

Whereas the French prepared their mustard condiments by soaking the seeds, then grinding them and sometimes straining out the hulls, the English took a different approach. They ground their mustard seeds coarsely with flour and sometimes a little cinnamon, moistened the resulting oily paste, and formed it into balls, which were then dried. The cook would reconstitute a mustard ball by mixing it with a liquid, usually vinegar.





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