Corps de l’article

A prime-grade rib-eye steak with intersecting charred marks lies on a bed of steaming garlic mashed potatoes. The serrated knife slices effortlessly through the meat revealing a marbled grain. The eager diner spreads a dollop of dark yellow mustard on a morsel of meat and takes a bite. His nose tingles, his palate salivates, and his eyes water. He slouches down in his seat ready for his next bite. Mustards are such banal condiments at most tables that few people really notice them. Yet taking a closer look at mustard can reveal much about our history and culture, as citizens of the world and also of Canada.

Selective Pressure

200, 000 bce, North Africa

A lone turf of green with bright yellow flowers clings to a rocky outcrop. Most of the wild grasses around are brown and dead, a sign of the dry season. A hungry grazer catches a distant glimpse of the wild plant. It slowly ascends the rocky mound and gently sniffs the delicate greens. It takes a bite of the plant, chews leisurely. Mouth burning and nose stinging, it tries its best to regurgitate the plant. The animal walks away learning a valid lesson. Little did the ruminant know that the plant, just as any other in the mustard family, produces an abundance of bitter organic compounds derived from the plant’s natural sugars.[1] When combined with a special enzyme, they are transformed into a toxic reactant protecting the plant from insect and animal threats. This toxin is also harmful to the plant, and both the compound and the enzyme are stored in different parts of the cell, only coming in contact when the plant is injured.[2]

2000 bce, Ancient Sumer, Middle East

On the fertile banks of the Tigris River sits a small plot of land surrounded by a complex irrigation network. On both sides of the canal, date trees are soaking up the sun. The land on the banks of the river is reserved for the finest crops. This year Ninurta, the god of fertility and rain, has been kind and the harvest will be plentiful: rows of lush green cabbage, perfectly shaped turnips and weedy mustard plants are thriving side by side.[3] These plants belong to the Brassicaceae or mustard family, which include over three thousand species. The wild plants thrive in temperate climates reaching maximum diversity around the Mediterranean.[4] The mustard family has been a blessing for agriculturalists around the world and has led to intense selective breeding. Other cultivated species include radishes, broccoli, collard greens, cauliflower, arugula, and canola.

Food and History

50 ce, Roman Empire, Campania

The people of the Empire call him Marcus Gavius Apicius.[5] He likes how the name sounds, believing it affords him a certain panache. His reputation precedes him: a glutton, a lover of luxury, and, most of all, the finest gourmet in the empire. He sails to remote places, seeking the extravagant and the exotic. He locks himself in his study for countless hours, opening his door only to break his fast. He is proud of his latest creation: Aliter In Struthione Elixo,[6] or ostrich boiled in mustard sauce. Romans were the first in Europe to use mustard in their cuisine. In fact, the English word mustard is derived from Latin mustum or unfermented wine and ardens, meaning burning.[7] A fourth-century Roman recipe for roasted boar calls for honey, olive oil, vinegar, crushed mustard seeds, and a dozen other herbs and spices.[8] The Gauls readily adopted the use of mustard seeds after being assimilated into Roman culture.

1190 ce, Central Japan

It has been five years since the defeat at Dan-no-Ura.[9] They had narrowly escaped the decisive naval battle and had fled like animals to the mountains. The memory of it leaves him with an unpleasant aftertaste reminding him of what he has lost. His few retainers are all that are left of his clan. They survive here, isolated, feeding on wild game, river fish, and mountain greens. They trade with locals that teach them how to shave a mountain root on uncooked venison and fish to make it more palatable.[10] The mountain green has a sharp sting, appealing to their sophisticated aristocratic palates. Wasabi has been used this way for centuries in Japan. It is said that the shogun, Ieasu Tokugawa, declared it a national treasure, ordering that it only be grown in Shizuoka next to his new capital, Edo.[11] Wasabi is very difficult to cultivate and needs special conditions to thrive, and for most of its history has been used as a rare mountain product.

1336 ce, Burgundy, France

All the preparations are under way for the Duke of Burgundy’s great gala. His objective is simple: he will outflank, outdo, and outspend all other members of the king’s court. Everything must be perfect; the Pope and his many retainers are on their way from Avignon. The Duke has spent a great fortune, borrowing heavily from money lenders: 160 barrels of wine from the finest villages in Burgundy, 56 roasted suckling pigs, 105 aged pheasants, and of course 70 gallons of moustarde prepared by the mustard guild in Dijon.[12] The Pope at Avignon eventually created the title of moutardier du Pape.[13] The decree was fitting since it was French Christian monks that preserved Roman mustard-making knowledge during the Dark Ages. Pope John XXII was said to love mustard so much that he named his good-for-nothing nephews premiers moutardiers du Pape. Hence, the French expression, to believe to be the Pope’s first mustard maker ― which means a person is a conceited fool.[14]

1617 ce, Saxony, Germany

The wealthy merchant sits alone at the large dinner table going over another inflammatory pamphlet. As if the situation is not bad enough. Trading is at an all-time low with rumours of impending war spreading across the region. People are divided on the lines of politics, religion, and customs. He sets the pamphlet down, but his worries will not go away. On the dinner table, ox stew is still steaming in a bowl. He shaves some meerrettich recently purchased at an unreasonable price. He feels the pleasant burn on his palate and forgets for a moment his troubles. Meerrettich, which would later be known as horseradish, first gained prominence as an everyday condiment in central Europe.[15] A prized trading commodity in the Holy Roman Empire (what is today Central Europe), it spread rapidly to Scandinavia and England where it became an everyday staple. There is some disagreement over the origin of the word. Horseradish comes either from a translation of meerrettich into mare/horse radish or from the defunct meaning of horse that signified strong.[16]

Global Flows

1970 ce, Collinsville, Illinois, United States

Workers are pacing up and down a larger conveyor belt. A huge thousand-pound container of fresh horseradish from a nearby farm empties onto the belt. The workers expertly trim off leaves and small roots. The air in the factory is filled with pungent vapour. Some of the workers stop to wipe their eyes and noses. When the trimming is complete, automated instruments wash, box, and ship the thick roots to far-flung distribution companies. The horseradish industry gained prominence in the America Midwest following the massive influx of German immigrants. The United States is the largest horseradish producer, with the small town of Collinsville, Illinois, producing 85 percent of the world’s premium horseradish.[17] Once processed, horseradish is usually combined with mayonnaise in a sauce used on meat or seafood.

1980 ce, Saskatchewan, Canada

A sea of yellow and green as far as the eyes can see gently bends in the wind. The day is hot and dry, perfect to begin a harvest. The young farmer steps down from his green and yellow tractor. His parents have lived and served the mustard magnates in Gravelbourg for as long as he can remember. He bends down and gently plucks the seeds of a nearby plant. He rubs the seeds between his hands, breathes deeply, smelling the familiar aroma. These seeds, like 90 percent of commercial mustard, are grown in Canada. India and Pakistan grow a large portion of mustard seeds, but these are mostly used as cooking oils.[18] The fertile prairies of central Saskatchewan are ideal for growing mustard. In this province alone, the industry employs over 3000 farmers on 240 thousand hectares. According to Saskatchewan’s premier, “every drop of mustard on a Yankee Stadium hot dog comes from Saskatchewan.”[19]

1990 ce, Springfield, Missouri, United States

The giant 1000-liter mustard-mixing tank reminds the technician of a science-fiction time travelling device. Tubes, nobs, and levers protrude out of the tank without any consideration for aesthetics. He gently adjusts the rotation cycle using the control dial located on the front of the machine. The system is not fail-safe, and requires some human monitoring. The bulk of the world’s table mustard is processed this way. For instance, 95 percent of the seeds used for the gourmet Moutarde de Meaux are grown, semi-processed, and sent from Canada.[20] The United States is the largest consumer of table mustard, with the brand French’s toping the sales. However, France has the highest per capita consumption of mustard, and its market is dominated by the brand Amora-Maille.

2000 ce, Tokyo, Japan

The hurried diners are parked side by side around a circular conveyor belt. In the middle, two sushi chefs are chatting with some of the customers. A sign reads: “Ask the chefs for special orders. Nama[21] wasabi available on demand.” A low curtain hides the far end of the conveyor belt. Where the belt disappears, one end enters empty and re-emerges like magic, with little plates of sushi lined up on the belt. On the other side of the curtain, an anonymous man is loading the sushi-making machine[22] with slices of fish, seasoned rice, and wasabi paste. The paste is almost exclusively used as a condiment on sushi or soba.[23] In fact, the dried powder used in restaurants and the paste sold in plastic tubes is simply a coloured version of horseradish, not true wasabi. In the early modern era, growing techniques were elaborated to increase yield; unfortunately this led to the decline in quality of the product. Real wasabi is very scarce and can rarely be produced industrially. Japan grows most of the high-grade wasabi, but recent high demands have boosted the production in the mountains of China, Taiwan, and New Zealand.


2005 ce, Napa, California, United States

Three judges are arguing around a tasting table.[24] The first judge complains that traditional dijon mustard is not anything like moutarde à l’ancienne. The second judge mumbles that he cannot stand disgusting sweet mustard blends. The third judge silently samples a mostarda di frutta made from local fruits and mustard seeds. He finds that the balance of sweetness and sting awakens his appetite. Innovation is not a recent phenomenon. All mustards including the celebrated moutarde de Dijon were at some point a novelty. Unlike other regional products, dijon mustard designates a specific recipe and not a region.[25] The key to achieving dijon mustard is to find the perfect balance of acidity, sweetness, and spiciness, making its flavour delicate and complex. The mustard can be winnowed or whole grain, where the husk is added after milling. In Toronto, Kozlik’s mustard crafts as many as 38 varieties of mustards using only the best organic mustard seeds grown in Canada. Their Triple Crunch mustard that combines three kinds of whole grain and Canadian Club whisky is a favourite of Chef’s in Canada and Abroad.[26]

2009 ce, Manhattan, New York, United States

Saturdays are the busiest nights at Le Relais. The kitchen is in chaos with pans sizzling, grills smoking, doors opening, and people shouting over the commotion. She hears the nasal voice of the sous-chef: “une soupe du jour, une salade aux noix et deux entrecôtes à point.” That is her station. She throws the two steaks on the blackened grill. Next to her, the saucier is browning some chicken livers, fresh thyme, crème fraiche, and white dijon mustard.26 He then gently strains the rich gravy and keeps it on a low burner, ready to be served over the meat. Mustard’s ability to emulsify makes it ideal for cream sauces and salad dressings. Although it loses its potency once heated, it adds a pleasant kick to insipid sauces. Mustard, known to cling perfectly to meat and to brown without burning, can also be used as a marinade or roasting paste.

A plastic bottle of mild yellow mustard sits at a hot-dog stand on a busy New York sidewalk. Whole grain mustard is delicately smeared on a Canadian grass-fed rack of lamb in the kitchen of a celebrated restaurant. A delicate porcelain crock of sweet Bavarian mustard rests near a plate of weißwurst during Octoberfest. These distant places are united by the same peculiar condiment, essential at most tables. In the words of the British herbalist John Gerard: “the seede of mustard pounded with vinegar is an excellent sauce, good to be eaten with any grosse meates, either fish or flesh, because it doth help digestion, warmeth the stomache and provoketh appetite.”[27] A closer look into the many lives of mustards illustrates how history, global markets, and taste can be tied to the simplest of ingredients.