There are few things or people that can be simultaneously glamorous and fusty. Trifle and the Queen are two. Mustard is another. As a shade, it is the peeling walls of dingy bars, student garrets, and the “smouldering unclean yellow” of the wallpaper that tormented Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s imprisoned protagonist. But it is also inherently luscious: in its edible form, it is viscous, spicy gold, the most elegant condiment.
Mustard is the magnetic ingredient that gives a good vinaigrette its seductive power. In the divorce novel Heartburn, when Nora Ephron’s husband leaves her for a “clever giant” whose nose is “as long as a thumb”, she cannot believe he would be prepared to risk losing not her, but her vinaigrette. When the American food writer M.F.K. Fisher arrived in Dijon as a newlywed in 1929, she found a set of “miserable servants’ rooms” with dismal yellow walls and “old, tired velvet curtains” to rent from the Ollangnier family. The dining room was small, dark and dirty, but Fisher was enchanted nonetheless, because every lunchtime it was filled with the generosity of Monsieur Ollangnier’s “great big salads”. He dressed them at the table – “always a ceremony” – in a large bowl with mustard, vinegar and oil. Regardless of who has cooked, it is always this final moment at the table before eating commences that is observed and admired: the brisk, confident whisking and the swift turning of the leaves. In my family, my sister-in-law Sophie plays this role. She also happens to be French.
Mustard has long been cherished for its medicinal properties. From Pythagoras and Hippocrates to the present, mustard has been posited as a treatment for scorpion and snake bites, bubonic plague, pneumonia, arthritis and malaria, and to stimulate digestion. Mustard seeds are thought to be the “eye of newt” Macbeth’s witches added to their brew, and would have been used frequently by friars, apothecaries and other healers and alchemists over the centuries. Fearing for his health as he grew older, Immanuel Kant would mix his own English mustard for dinner every day, hoping to delay the onset of senility. There’s a sketch of the act, head bent thoughtfully over the pot, made by his friend Friedrich Hagemann in 1801.
Modern-day mustard descends from the recipe and name given to it by the Romans. According to historian Demet Güzey, “the name ‘mustard’ was born when the Romans mixed unfermented grape juice, must (Latin mustum) with ground mustard seeds and made a hot must, mustum ardens.” That nose-singeing sensation is a product of the seeds’ mustard oil – a natural insecticide the plant produces, which is present in other members of the Brassicaceae family, such as horseradish, radishes, turnips (another favourite of Kant), cabbage and kohlrabi. It gives these foods their shared “head-filling hotness”, as food writer Harold McGee describes it. Part of the delight of mustard condiment is the risk of using too much so that the spicy, agitating jam throttles your throat and sets your nose aflame as you eat. Admittedly, not everyone likes to have their nostrils burnt out. But for others, it’s the whole thrill, perhaps giving name to the popular British 19th-century “Wow-Wow” sauce to accompany meats, which contained mustard, vinegar and pickles.
These are the ways I like mustard: scraped onto bread to save a boring sandwich; slapped onto salt beef; a scoop on the side of my plate, to be swiped at with a sausage; as the basis for a hearty, wine-filled sauce. Mustard is as present in my kitchen as vinegar and onions, and second in significance only to salt, pepper and oil. It’s a part of my culinary furniture. And the first time I found out I could not find it, I panicked.
This was last summer, when I was working as a chef for contemporary design workshops at a chateau in southwest France. We had our fair share of drama, thanks mostly to thunderstorms that caused power cuts and minor floods. But the real trouble started when we took our first trip to the catering supermarket, Metro, for supplies. Wielding a trolley the size of a queen-sized bed, I found myself standing in front of a vast hollow space where there ought to have been tubs of Dijon mustard. “I think it’s because of the drought in Canada,” my kitchen assistant Amélie said, as she heaved a vast jar of gherkins off a nearby shelf. “There’s a shortage across the whole country.”
Back in the kitchen, we made do, seeking out the properties we desired in other foods. There were radishes with salty butter, shredded cabbage salads and finely sliced kohlrabi, plus lemons and vinegar in everything. Still, the idea that Dijon mustard could simply vanish in France seemed odd. It’s a country known to be so fiercely protective of its “terroir” – its geographically embedded cuisine – that it borders on gastronomic autarky. The idea that a mustard of Dijon, unlike say, a cheese of Roquefort or a lentil of Puy, could rely on imports for its production seems contradictory, a mystery even. Canada actually supplies about 80% of the seeds for mustard making in France, and there’s a vanishingly small number of Dijon mustard makers who use products exclusively from the region itself. So, a year later, with France’s mustard supplies safely replenished, I decided to go to Dijon to stock up, and find out more.
I boarded the Eurostar on a Thursday in late September, stopped in Paris for a plate of palourdes in wine and mustard sauce at Aux Deux Amis with Amélie, and was in Dijon by early afternoon the following day. It was quiet, except for the solemn bells of the Gothic cathedral, which chimed for a funeral as I walked past. The mustard and black turrets, standing sentinels on each side of the building, were drained of their pigment under a gloomy sky. I had that uncanny feeling, compounded by Dijon’s fetish for its past, of the new town as a film set: creatures carved in wood and stone, wooden beams, scattershot roof tiles in mustard, burgundy, green and black; a church with rows and rows of stone gargoyles, gullets wide open like fifty black eyes staring down at you; a picturesque carousel spinning empty; a wise stone owl that’s been eroded over centuries of rubs for good luck.
At Mulot & Petitjean – an 18th-century enterprise encased in a 15th-century building behind a 20th-century neo-Gothic rust red façade, flanked by a frog and dragon – there were stacks of pain d’épices, the chewy local gingerbread. Long loaves, vast wedges and little cakes burst off the tightly packed shelves of the dark–panelled shop. There were also nonnettes, stout cylinders of gingerbread stuffed with jewel-coloured jams of blackcurrant, apricot, lemon curd, orange and onion. I thought of Fisher’s memories of the interwar years, and how “all year and everywhere [they] smelled the Dijon gingerbread”, drifting out of the shops and bakeries of the dozen gingerbread makers into churches, cafes and the theatre. These days, there is just one maker, and when I sniffed the foil packets, self-conscious in front of the unsmiling shop assistant, I couldn’t make out any scent at all. Partly because I had held them up to my nose a little too long, I bought a roll of apricot nonnettes and left.
By nightfall, the mood of the city had changed, codeswitching like its condiment, from gothic to glamourous. The turrets of the cathedral were alight with cascades of golden liquid. Meanwhile, Sean Paul thrummed out from the hotel opposite where I was staying, the latest opening for affordable boutique chain, Mama Shelter. The brand is known for its parties. The night progressed swiftly from kir cocktails and charcuterie to adhesive face gems, feather fans and a samba performance, spurred on by half a dozen high-spirited party reps. Think of it as a glitzy, sex-positive youth hostel for grown-ups: there are sex toys for sale at the front desk, free porn on the tv and playful masks hanging off the bedroom lamps.
The foundation of Mama’s bacchanalia, though, is its interior décor, led by virtuoso head designer Benjamin El Doghaïli. Drawing inspiration from the Burgundy region, he blends the overt – corridors carpeted in long twisting grapevines – with more subtle nods, from headboards using traditional basketry weave to light fixtures and floor tiles that riff on Dijon’s multi-coloured rooftops. On the soft furnishings and inside the lifts, there’s a trippy iteration of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights with added snails, owls and mustard pots in amongst the frolicking. In this rambunctious atmosphere, it’s a given that the best way forward is through: join the revelry or regret it.
The next morning at breakfast, bleary-eyed, I picked up a glass for juice decorated with childish sketches. Another guest stopped me, grabbed my hand, and exclaimed gleefully, “Oh my god, I remember these from when I was a kid!” I hadn’t realised I was holding a repurposed mustard pot: beneath the Asterix cartoon emblazoned on the beaker was the Maille logo. El Doghaïli doesn’t miss a beat.
There’s not much of Dijon in Maille in reality. Despite a luxurious black-and-gold-faced flagship store in the city, which has been around since the middle of the 19th century, Maille originated in Marseille. These days it is owned by British multinational Unilever and it was one of the brands to suffer from the Canadian mustard seed shortage last year. The backup plan to import seeds from Ukraine proved unworkable under the circumstances. Grey Poupon is another case in point: it’s seen as the epitome of French sophistication, and has loyalists amongst tastemakers from Nora Ephron to Alison Roman, but it is owned by Kraft Foods and manufactured using Canadian seeds in Upstate New York.
How Dijon gained and then lost its mustard is a story of change by degrees. Burgundy as home to both mustard and great wines isn’t an accident: it’s a tangled and codependent history. Mustard arrived in Dijon – then Divio – with the Romans, who planted it in vineyards as a source of nutrients for the vines. It was soon grown in abundance throughout Burgundy and widely used as a spice and condiment.
By the 14th century, mustard was a source of obsessions and accolades. According to Alexandre Dumas’ Dictionary of Cuisine (1873), Pope John XXII of Avignon created the post of “grand moutardier du pape” to provide him with the finest mustard, an honour he bestowed on an otherwise low-achieving nephew in Dijon. A dinner hosted in honour of King Philip VI of France by the Duke of Burgundy at that time purportedly involved the provision of one hundred gallons of the substance. In 1390, the first mustard regulations were imposed, ensuring any bad mustard would be penalised, and by the 16th century, Burgundy had its own guilds of mustard-makers.
The distinctively Dijon recipe for mustard once used verjus, the juice of unripe Bourdelas grapes, but those vines would be wiped out by the pest phylloxera, alongside many other beloved French grapes, in the wine blight of the late 19th century. The traditional verjus was later replaced by vinegar and white wine and remains the recipe to this day.
When the region became a major charcoal producer in the 17th century, the coal fields proved fertile ground for sowing mustard seeds. But by the early 20th century, moutardiers increasingly used imported seeds for their factories. Local seed production had completely collapsed by the last quarter of the century, with farmers preferring to grow more profitable rapeseed instead.Genuinely local Dijon mustard is a rare find, and Moutarderie Edmond Fallot, which uses exclusively Burgundian seed, is well-loved as a result. At Mama Shelter that love is expressed in its special edition Mama Loves Edmond Fallot mustard pots.
The company has its factory in Beaune, a thirty-minute train ride south. Beaune is home to the Hospices de Beaune, with their exceptionally striking geometric glazed Renaissance roofs, as well as to some of the region’s most storied winemakers. The chateau of one, Bouchard Père et Fils, which I passed on the way into town from the station, is more than a little Fifty Shades, with phallic topiary, a green and yellow glazed roof declaring unbelievable wealth and an imposing family crest bearing two wolves, their tongues thrust out like daggers.
The gift shop at Edmond Fallot was crowded when I arrived, so I went straight into the factory itself with the company’s tourism manager, Sophie Chapuis. The mustard seeds and wine on the air hit me in a sweet, slightly stinging, wave, and lingered as I walked around. Edmond Fallot is meticulously faithful to the past: the seeds are entirely local, and the factory still uses traditional millstones to crush them, ensuring that they don’t overheat and lose their pungency.
There isn’t much appetite for making Dijon mustard a geographically protected product, though, Sophie explains, since none of the best-known companies operate out of the city. Instead, they’ve settled on a compromise. Since 2009, Moutarde de Bourgogne has been certified by a Protected Geographical Indication, which means that the label can be used for mustards which use exclusively local mustard seeds and wines in their production. Only Edmond Fallot and one other local company, Reine De Dijon, have mustards that fall into this category.
In the gift shop, Sophie invited me to try some of the mustards. There were wholegrains and smooths, and then a world of flavours and colours: walnut, tarragon, basil, honey, cassis, Provençale pepper and tomato. If I assumed such variety was a product of the 21st-century Gift Shop economy, I was wrong. According to Dumas, the 18th-century founder of Maille was single-handedly responsible for inventing nearly two dozen flavours, including nasturtium, lemon, tarragon, garlic and truffle. At Edmond Fallot, eating straight from the spoon, I discovered my own preferences. Honey is sweet, sharp and familiar, walnut pleasantly earthy and hearty. Cassis, on the other hand, shall never pass these lips again.
I spent my last few hours in Dijon walking around the city. It was a clear, bright autumn day and I could feel the cold of the flagstones through my shoes. I stopped for lunch at Le Pré aux Clercs in front of the ducal palace on the Place de la Libération. It was oeufs en meurettes, poached eggs in a deep purple lake of Bourguignon sauce. It wasn’t my first meal in the city, but it felt like a new one. Beneath the rich meaty wine and the sweet onions, the rich kick of mustard, quiet but unmistakable, came singing out at me. ◉