The Mysteries of Mustard, with Thanks to the English

Mustard Seeds (Used by permission.)
Mustard Seeds (Used by permission.)

The seede of Mustard pounded with vinegar is an excellent sauce, good to be eaten with any gross meates, either fish or flesh…

– John Gerard, Herbal or General History of Plants, 1597

Famous American Mustard (Permission pending.)
Famous American Mustard (Photo copyrighted by Annabel Blair. Used with permission.)

American ballpark mustard–that tart, yellow, unctuous friend of hamburgers and hot dogs–does not define prepared or “table” mustard. Oh no, indeed not. In fact, the diversity of possible mustards boggles the mind. Second worldwide only to black pepper in popularity as a seasoning, mustard has a reputation for being easy to grow and prepare. Best of all, however, today’s cook only needs to meander down the aisle of the local supermarket and find mustard multitudes.

Speaking of multitudes, three-quarters of a pound of black mustard seed or two pounds of white mustard seed will spawn anywhere from 110 million to 500 million seeds on one acre of land. Great self-sowers, mustard seeds needed nothing more than ambulant animals or wind to proliferate in ancient, pre-agricultural times. Some authorities suggest that mustard seeds grew throughout Europe as early as the Stone Age. Before some creative “chef” thought to grind the seeds between two stones (thus making the first “prepared” mustard), people popped the seeds into their mouths as they chewed their food. Instant seasoning is nothing new, it seems.

Fields of Mustard (Used with permission.)
Fields of Mustard (Used with permission.)

Soon cooks began blending and brewing the proverbial multitudes of mustards. The first written record of mustard appeared in a Roman manuscript, Lucius Iunius Moderatus Columella’s De Re Rustica. XII 57. The Bible, too, weighs in on mustard seeds with Matthew 17:20:  “And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” Mentioned in several medieval cookbooks, mustard provided spice and heat for a far cheaper price than the more expensive spices from the Far East. A cold weather crop whose flowers look a lot like canola, mustard aids the growth of many grain crops, including wheat and barley. The greens appeared in English pottage long before the settlement of America and the introduction of African slave cooks.

A little etymology is in order here: The word mustard stems from a Middle English word mustarde, or “condiment,” derived from an Old French word, mostarde. In this root the Latin lingers, mustum, the word for grape must, or unfermented wine. Mustard was originally made by mixing fresh grape juice with ground mustard seed. Medieval recipes, in spite of difficult spelling and vague quantities of ingredients, provide a peep into how mustard fit into menus of the times.

From The Forme of Curye, a fourteenth-century English manuscript cookbook, comes LUMBARD MUSTARD, curye being an Old English word for “food”:

Take Mustard seed and waishe it & drye it in an ovene, grynde it drye. farse it thrugh a farse. clarifie hony with wyne & vynegur & stere it wel togedr and make it thikke ynowz. & whan þou wilt spende þerof make it thynne with wyne.

Mustard Growing into Pods (Used with permission.)
Mustard Growing into Pods (Used with permission.)

Shakespeare mentioned mustard in Henry IVHis wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard.” And in 1720, a Mrs. Clements of Durham milled mustard seeds into a fine yellow powder which, when mixed with water, made for a most incendiary concoction known for a long time as Durham Mustard. Mustard cured sore muscles, colds, upset stomachs, and more, according to folklore. Who knows-maybe it worked? Its chemistry certainly enables it to act as a natural preservative. And its effects as a gas made the curse of soldiers in World War I.

Today, chefs and cooks add prepared mustards more to sauces and salad dressings than to sore muscles. Types of prepared mustards available include the aforementioned American mustard, French-style Dijon mustard – about which an entire book could be written thanks to the Dukes of Burgundy, whole-grain or rustic mustards, and brown mustard, actually a cousin to the whole-grain family. And that’s just the bare bones of mustard taxonomy.

Jar of Mustard (Used with permission.)
Jar of Mustard (Used with permission.)

Add a tablespoon or two of French Dijon-style mustard to meat gravy, along with a few tablespoons of sour cream, just before serving and, well, you will be amazed at what you have wrought. Try putting a pot of mustard on the table when you serve any sort of roasted or grilled meat; meat tastes extra special spread with a few dabs of mustard before roasting, for that matter. Collect a multitude of jarred prepared mustards. Or go a step further: blend and brew your own mustards for the mustard pot.

When winter arrives, and persists, a few pots of exotic mustards brighten even on the most dismal of days. Of course, in America, we may never send our children to the mustard shop, as they do in Dijon, France, with instructions to buy a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of prepared Dijon mustard. But we just might. Oh yes, indeed.


Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/3 cup white wine vinegar

1 t. dried tarragon leaves

1/3 cup water

1/4 t. ground black pepper

1/8 t. ground allspice

1 T. honey

1 1/2 t. coarse (kosher) salt

1 t. dried tarragon

1. Mix the first four ingredients and let stand for at least 3 hours.

2. Pour mustard mixture into a blender or food processor; add the next five ingredients and blend into a pureé. Scrape into the top of a double boiler. Place over simmering water.

3. Over simmering water, heat the mustard mixture for about 10 minutes or until slightly thickened. Stir in the remaining tarragon, scrape the mustard into a sterile jar, and cap it. Stores indefinitely in the refrigerator.


Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1/4 cup red wine

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup water

1/4 t. ground allspice

1 t. honey

1/2 t. ground black pepper

2 garlic cloves, peeled, mashed, and minced

1 1/2 t. coarse (kosher) salt

1 bay leaf, pulverized

1. Combine first three ingredients and let stand for 3 or more hours.

2. Pour mustard mixture into blender or food processor, add remaining ingredients, and pureé.

3. Scrape mustard into the top of double boiler and heat over simmering water for 5-10 minutes until mustard thickens slightly. Scrape into a clean jar, cap, and store in refrigerator. Keeps indefinitely.

© 2016 C. Bertelsen

Three Types of Mustard (Used by permission.)
Three Types of Mustard (Used by permission.)

3 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Mustard, with Thanks to the English

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