We’re back with the Romans again with this one. When they were making wine, they called the freshly crushed grape juice vinum mustum – ‘young wine’ (in today’s winemaking, it’s still called ‘must’). Mustum was widely used in Roman cookery, and when mixed with the ground seeds of sinapis (the Roman name for the mustard plant), it produced ‘burning must’ - mustum ardens - which, over time, was conflated to ‘mustard’; ardens is the root of the word ‘ardent’ – if you are passionate or fervent, you are ‘burning’.
The Romans introduced mustard into Gaul, where the monks there grew the plant alongside their vines. Mustard arrived in England with the Normans; moutarde from the Dijon area was so highly regarded that Pope John Paul XXII of Avignon (1244-1334) created the post of Grand Moutardier du Pape – Grand Mustard-maker to the Pope. Unlike many spices, mustard grows readily in the European climate, and so there was no need to import it from the East, and so was available to all.
Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, was famous for its mustard – in Henry IV Part II, Shakespeare has Falstaff describe Poins with the line “His wit’s as thick as Tewksbury mustard.” Tewkesbury mustard contains grated horseradish root (and sometimes other herbs and spices), and was formed into balls and dried, to be broken up and dissolved later in water, vinegar, cider or other liquid as required.
The accounts rolls of the monks on the Farne Islands for 1436 mention mystert qweryngs – ‘mustard querns’, (querns are grindstones), and it was usual to grind mustard at home. About 1720, a Mrs Clements from Durham developed a new method of milling and refining mustard and she sold her wares nationwide, including to the court of George I – from where the fashion spread. Messers Keen and Sons opened a rival mustard factory at Garlick Hill London in 1742, and sold to taverns and chophouses, spreading the demand further (but in spite of what some may say, this is not the origin of the phrase ‘As Keen as Mustard’, which was first recorded in 1672, and is maybe a variant of ‘the keenest mustard’ dating from 1658).
In 1814, Jeremiah Colman, a flour miller, branched out with a mustard mill at Bawburgh near Norwich. Colman’s introduced their famous bull’s head logo and yellow packaging in 1855, and in 1866 received the Royal Warrant to supply mustard to Queen Victoria. His family continued to produce mustard, buying out Keen’s in 1903, until the firm itself was bought out by Unilever in 1995. When he was asked how he had made a fortune from something as modest as mustard, Jeremiah Colman replied it was not from the mustard that people ate, but from what they left on the side of the plate.
English mustard is a wonderful, robust accompaniment to roast beef (as an alternative to horseradish sauce), cold meats, cheese, pies, sausages and so on. French mustard is more versatile, and works well in vinaigrettes, dressings and mayonnaise, with charcuterie and coquilles Saint Jacques. I’ll be honest and say outright I am not fond of German mustard – but that’s just a question of personal taste. American mustard should only be eaten on burgers and hot dogs. There are many ‘fancy’ mustards available, with fruit and honey and wine and heaven knows what else – if you find one you like, stick with it. I like to add wholegrain honey mustard to barbeque marinades.
For a mass-produced product, Colman’s English mustard is very, very good indeed (if it’s good enough for the Queen, it’ll do for me), but if I had to mention an alternative I’d go for Tracklements Strong English, however it is pricey for what it is.