All you need to know about Mustard, a Condiment with a Rich History

October 09 2019

Mustard is a condiment that tends to provoke strong reactions, with some people loving its powerful, distinctive flavor and others viewing it as more of an acquired taste.

It's certainly beyond any doubt that mustard is a unique and versatile ingredient, which can be used as anything from a hot dog topping to a soup flavoring. It also has a fascinating history that stretches all the way back to ancient times.

The origins of mustard

Archaeological findings have shown that the mustard plant - the seeds of which are mixed with water, vinegar, lemon juice or other liquids, along with salt and other flavorings to make mustard - was cultivated in Asia's Indus valley by a civilization that existed until about 1800 BC.

The preparation and use of mustard as a condiment is thought to have started in ancient Rome, when citizens mixed unfermented grape juice (must) with ground mustard seeds. This creation was described as 'burning must', or 'mustum ardens' in Latin, which was eventually contracted to create the word mustard.

An anonymously compiled Roman cookbook from the late fourth or early fifth century features a recipe that combines ground mustard with other ingredients including pepper, coriander seeds, dill, celery, onion, honey, vinegar, fish sauce and oil. The resulting concoction was intended as a glaze for spit-roasted boar.

The Romans also played a key role in introducing mustard to the world when they exported mustard seeds to Gaul, a historical region of Western Europe that encompasses present-day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, as well as parts of Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.

Arrival in France

France is central to the history of mustard, with the city of Dijon in the west of the country today regarded as the mustard capital of the world.

Thanks to the Roman export of mustard seed to Gaul, monks of Saint-Germain-des-Pres in present-day Paris were able to start their own production of mustard as a condiment. By the 13th century, Dijon had become a recognized center for mustard making.

It was soon a highly popular part of French cuisine, with written accounts showing that guests of a gala held by the Duke of Burgundy in 1336 consumed some 320 liters (about 70 gallons) of mustard in a single sitting.

Grey-Poupon, one of the most famous manufacturers of Dijon mustard, was established in 1877 through a partnership between Maurice Grey, who came up with a unique recipe based on white wine, and his financial backer Auguste Poupon.

Popularity in England and the US

England also contributed to the growing popularity of mustard in the Middle Ages. The Forme of Cury, a book written by King Richard II's master cooks and published in 1390, features one of the earliest mentions of mustard as a condiment.

It was traditionally prepared in the form of mustard balls, with coarse-ground seeds mixed with flour and cinnamon, rolled into balls and dried, before being combined with vinegar or wine to make a paste.

One of the best-known centers of mustard ball production was Tewkesbury in present-day Gloucestershire. The town's produce is even mentioned in Shakespeare's King Henry the Fourth, Part II.

In the 20th century, mustard was well and truly embraced on the other side of the Atlantic. French's mustard, which continues to be widely used today, was introduced to America by the R.T. French Company at the 1904 St Louis World's Fair.

The condiment remains as popular today as it has ever been, offering endless potential combinations with other ingredients and foods. Whether you serve it up with bratwurst and pretzels, or combine it with cream, parsley, garlic and bacon for a delicious soup, there is no shortage of ways to experiment with mustard in your cooking.