The Colonel’s condiment
Having been writing as “Colonel Mustard” for over a year now, I thought it was high time we had a closer look at the spicy yellow stuff, just where it comes from and the variety of ways that we can use it. This week, then, I’ve been looking at the history of mustard and using it to make both savoury and sweet foods.
Mustard comes from a plant in the Brassica genus, which makes it a relative of cabbages and turnips. Both the mustard greens and seeds are edible and there are a variety of different types of mustard plant that each produce a different colour of seed and a different flavour. Brassica alba, the yellowish coloured White Mustard, grew originally in the Mediterranean and spread from there, Brassica juncea, the darker Brown Mustard, came from the Himalayas and has spread through India and is now also grown in this country, while Brassica nigra, Black Mustard, is grown in the Americas. The Brown Mustard is the one that is generally spiciest and is used in curry recipes as well as being the one primarily used for its greens. White Mustard is the mildest and is typically used in mass produced table mustard.
Pliny, in his Natural History, describes the varieties of mustard plant that were available even in the 1st century AD: “There are three different kinds of mustard, the first of a thin, slender form, the second, with a leaf like that of the rape, and the third, with that of rocker: the best seed comes from Egypt.” He goes on to say that: “Mustard has so pungent a flavour that it burns like fire, though at the same time it is remarkably wholesome for the body”.
Indeed Pliny’s main interest in the plant is not culinary but medical. He proposes mustard for use against stings and poisons, to fight tooth ache, asthma and epilepsy, in external application to alleviate pain in the chest, loins, hips and shoulders and to raise blisters and bruises, and “to promote the menstrual discharge and urinary secretions”. Some of these are valid uses of mustard that have continued to modern times, but of course it wouldn’t be Pliny without some bonkers nonsense (remember how he said all hares are hermaphrodites and can give birth without a mate? or that time he said that the vulva of a sow who had aborted her first litter was the best dish of all?) and here he suggests that mustard is “one of the most wholesome medicines in existence” for dealing with lazy, listless women.
The medicinal properties of mustard are also referred to in Buddhist teaching, notably the parable of Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed. In this story Kisa Gotami is grieving for the death of her only child and seeking medicine to bring him back. She goes to the Buddha and he tells her to bring him a handful of mustard seeds “taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend”. When Kisa Gotami finds that no such house exists, she learns to appreciate: “How selfish am I in my grief! Death is common to all”.
Buddha is not the only religious icon to refer to mustard, it shows up in a wide variety of religious texts from all different cultures. In the Gospel of Matthew even Jesus demonstrates a familiarity with mustard cultivation. As with almost any other thing referenced in one of Jesus’ stories, it turns out that mustard is like the kingdom of heaven: “The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field. Which indeed is the least of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” (Matthew 13:31-2). Aside from the fact that mustard is neither especially small as a seed, nor as large as a tree as a fully grown plant, this would seem to imply that Jesus’ viewed the greens as the interesting to eat part, the herb rather than the spice.
The name “mustard” ultimately can trace its etymology from the Roman period (it comes from “mustum” or “new wine” because that was what the seeds were added to to form a paste). The popularity of mustard in classical cooking is apparent in how the first written recipe for mustard appears in the first written recipe book, Apicius’ De re coquinaria, which I talked about a few months ago. A recipe in Apicius for use with boar runs: “Pepper, lovage, cumin, dill seed, thyme, origany, little silphium, rather more mustard seed, add pure wine, some green herbs, a little onion, crushed nuts from the Pontus, or almonds, dates, honey, vinegar, some more pure wine, color with reduced must and add broth and oil.”
The reason that both Jesus and Buddha make reference to mustard seeds lies not in anything special about them, but in how they are ubiquitous enough for their audiences to understand the metaphor. The commonplace nature of mustard can, thus, be traced in how the name is used colloquially. Up until the arrival of Asian and American peppers it was the hottest spice available and, even after an influx of spices through England’s colonial expansion, it was the one available to ordinary people. In the 1600s pepper was 200 times the price of mustard. Because of this, “mustard”, being the only strong flavour kick available to most people, came to mean something strong, important or good.
Even at the turn of the 20th century, you could describe someone as “mustard” and it would essentially mean “hot stuff”. It is from around this period from which the expression “cut the mustard” originates. There seems to be some debate as to what stage of mustard production the cutting element is. The Phrase Finder suggests various explanations of the difficulty of cutting mustard: “Mustard seed, which is hard to cut with a knife on account of its being small and shiny; Mustard plants, which are tough and stringy and grow densely; Culinary mustard, which is cut (diluted) and made more palatable by the addition of vinegar; Dried mustard paste, which was reputedly used to coat meat and then dried to form a crust.” It also dismisses the idea that the phrase is a bastardization of a military concept of “cutting the muster” as that would obviously not be a good thing to do. In fact, “cut the mustard” probably relates to the far older uses of “mustard” in slang. As far back as the 1600s, people were described as being “as keen as mustard“, where keen meant hot headed and enthusiastic (incidentally this pre-dates by a couple of centuries the founding of the Keen’s Mustard brand, so the phrase has nothing to do with that).
Just as the first written mustard recipes exist in the first full recipe book in existence, so do the first mustard recipes written in English appear in the first recipe book written in English, the 14th century Forme of Cury. A recipe for “Lumbard Mustard” (as in mustard from Lombardy in Italy) reads: “Take Mustard seed and waishe it & drye it in an ovene, grynde it drye. farse it thurgh a farse. clarifie hony with wyne & vynegur & stere it wel togedrer and make it thikke ynowz. & whan thou wilt spende therof make it tnynne with wyne.”
To make my own mustard, then, I had to begin with the seeds of one of the various mustard plants and some kind of liquid to soak them in. Choosing to take inspiration from The Forme of Cury and, in particular, De re coquinaria, I decided to make a mustard that used wine and vinegar or, rather, a red wine vinegar to which I could then add some of the various spices suggested by Apicius. Wanting a mix of the hotter, spicier flavours of the black mustard seeds and the milder flavour of the white ones, I used 15g of black seeds and 10g of white and soaked them in a mix of 25ml of red wine vinegar, 25ml of cider vinegar and 20ml of water. After soaking overnight and allowing the mustard seeds to soak up the vinegar, I crushed them into a paste.
Following on from Apicius’ ingredients, I then ground up a mix of black peppercorns, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, dried oregano and thyme and stirred this into the mustard mix along with a tablespoon of honey and a teaspoon of fish sauce. Happy with the wholegrain mustard that I had made with this method, I decided to try it on some pork in honour of Apicius’ suggestion of using the mustard as a glaze for wild boar. So, I glazed the pork with my Roman-style mustard and set it in the oven to slowly roast for the afternoon in the style of the puerco pibil I made for Robert Rodriguez week in movie month.
After seven hours the pork was deliciously tender and fell apart easily at the touch of the knife. I served it alongside a mix of shredded cabbage and carrot fried in garlic and mustard seeds to continue the mustard theme. The Roman-style mustard definitely worked pretty well in providing a mix of spiciness and the sweetness of the honey.
This seemed like a pretty safe piece of cooking, though, despite it being the first mustard that I had made for myself and the ingredients being inspired by those used 2000 years ago. After the mustard glazed pork was finished I was keen as mustard to try something a little more novel: sweet dessert mustard. While sweet mustards are a thing in Germany, even in those circumstances they are used for eating with sausage and other meat products. Mustard for dessert is almost unheard of.
But why should it be? Spicy flavours like chilli have been popular with bitter, dark chocolate since the days of the ancient Maya, so why not use the spiciness of mustard instead? I’m no stranger to unusual usage of mustard (remember the mustard ice cream that I served with a pork pie?), so I thought that I could give a go at a mustard based dessert and a custom made sweet mustard to use with it. Having googled for what small number of mustard based desserts there are out there, I found this one for mustard filled chocolate fondant from high end mustard producers Maille, who have a kind of vested interest in people using as much mustard as possible, so may not be the perfect impartial recipe providers. I was, however, intrigued by the idea of freezing a mix of mustard and whipped cream in an ice cube tray and then slipping this into the middle of the fondant mix, so I decided at least to follow this method.
Because I was working with chocolate and wanted something sweeter, I used just white mustard seeds with this second mustard and soaked it entirely in freshly squeezed orange juice. Unlike the grainy texture I wanted with the main course mustard, the dessert one needed to be smooth like a Dijon style mustard. So, having ground the soaked mustard seed into a paste, I forced it through a sieve until I had a much smoother consistency. Finally, I stirred in some honey and a spoonful of ground cinnamon, a spice that felt more appropriate for a dessert mustard than the ones that I used in the main course.
Following the advice of the Maille recipe, I mixed a spoon of my dessert mustard and a spoon of whipping cream and froze a couple of cubes of it. After enjoying the mustard glazed slow roast pork, I returned to the kitchen to make a chocolate fondant mix from melted chocolate and butter, a separated egg, the yolk mixed with flour and the white whipped into peaks. Spooning this into the pudding tins, I put the frozen mustard mix into the middle and baked the fondants.
The size of this frozen filling meant that it took up a little too much space in the pudding tin, meaning the fondants did not bake a consistent crust around the age, making them harder to turn out than usual. On tasting them, the mustard flavour was somewhat overwhelming. Even with the sweeter ingredients, it remained a very dry, hot taste and that proved too much for any of the other flavours on the plate to compete with.
I still think that mustard and chocolate or mustard for dessert is a rarely explored culinary opportunity with potential, but for the balance of flavours to function it will need significantly less mustard in comparison with the chocolate. While the main course was a traditional success, the dessert was an experimental failure, but definitely one to experiment with further if I’m to earn my stripes as a possible colonel of mustard.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: The mustard pork was gorgeous, and I’ve staked a claim to the leftovers for lunch at work. It was very tender after being slow cooked, and the mustard glaze was the right balance of sweet and hot. The mustard chocolate didn’t work nearly so well. The proportions were off – there was far too much mustard compared with the chocolate – and the heat of the mustard overwhelmed everything else and lingered as a slightly unpleasant aftertaste. When it comes to combining hot flavours with chocolate, you can see why chilli is the go to choice. I think a much smaller mustard centre might help, especially if the sweeter flavours can be persuaded to shine through more strongly, but I’m not sure there’ll ever be a perfect chocolate-mustard combination.