The fiery yellow condiment that will forever tie me to French cooking.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on Dijon Mustard, that smooth, fiery yellow condiment I’m never without, and whose presence in my kitchen roots my cooking firmly in the French tradition.
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This was no joke, and my broad selection spans from Colemans English Mustard to knobbly wholegrain, and the special, almost earthy purple Moutarde Violette from Corrèze, flavoured and coloured with grape must (it’s rounder in flavour than other smooth French mustards, but with a pleasant underlying sharp sweetness).
But one mustard reigns supreme. If you ask me to pass the mustard, I reach for Maille’s Dijon Originale.
I’m one of those people who marks memories in food, and I have quite a few memories of mustard. I don’t know why I prefer Maille, it is always what my mother buys, so it is what I always buy. I remember the first and only time I purchased the equally as popular Grey Poupon brand was as a student standing in the Mile End Budgens because I needed it for a recipe and it was all I could find. I also remember that it was cold and that I was wearing a terrible big black faux fur coat I wore everywhere that year. I remember little details usually when they’re attached to food.
I also remember that I can’t ever go back to the big out of town Carrefour in Dol de Bretagne after the time I thoughtlessly placed a couple of jars of Dijon mustard in the child seat of our trolley where one promptly rolled out onto the floor and smashed in the wine section. Flapping around trying to prevent anything else from falling a second jar smashed there, too. While French is okay when we’re talking about food (and I can understand much more than I can say) the words to explain and apologise to the store staff escaped me so I fled instead.
I know Pommery also make a good one I’ve bought for J a few times as he likes things extra strong and spicy, and I’ve used Amora a lot at home also not through preference, but because in French supermarkets they sell it in fun collectable drinking glasses with popular cartoon characters on. But Maille is what keeps my kitchen running - the fresher the better. I buy their supermarket jars as standard in both countries (and while I can’t actually remember I’ll put money on the idea that I did in the US also), but I’m itching for a trip to Paris, Bordeaux or Dijon to refill our crock with their freshly pumped Dijon made with Chablis (it has a rounder flavour than the one with Chardonnay) since the London mustard boutique closed. If you’ve never tasted freshly pumped mustard, put it on your culinary bucket list. It’s richer, rounder, and a lot fierier - if you don’t have access to a regular supply you’ll bemoan having to go back to the supermarket stuff afterwards.
I’m pretty sure that we all know by now that Dijon Mustard is made by finely grinding yellow mustard seeds with vinegar, giving Dijon Mustard it’s lovely sharpness missing, say, when you mix Colemans English Mustard powder with water, and often wine for a richer product.
Mustard has been made in France as a condiment since the Middle Ages, and the process started with regular vinegar (though, depending on regional differences and what was on hand, you’ve got to assume in the days before regional rules about how something is made, if wine vinegar is what was to hand, wine vinegar is what would have gone into the recipe!) The flavour we distinctly recognise as ‘Dijon’ came from the approximate 1856 substitution of the vinegar for Verjuice, by Dijon resident Jean Naigeon. Verjuice being a vibrant, acidic juice made from unripened grapes, you can see where things were going.
Incidentally, I came across this information in 75 Exceptional Herbs for Your Garden by Jack Staub, where mustard in general’s value to herbalists is also discussed, adding uses for it that if anything increases my fondness for the not-so-little jar of the stuff sitting in my fridge right now.
In 1664, John Evelyn is still touting mustard’s “incomparable effect to quicken and revive the Spirits, strengthening the Memory and expelling Heaviness…,” and Culpeper advises it in 1699 for “…clarifying the blood…weak stomachs…gnawing in the bowels..” and “…pains in the sides or loins, the shoulders, or any other parts of the body”… Modern herbalists still advocate mustard to promote good digestion, as, being an irritant, it stimulates the gastric mucous membrane and increases gastric juices, as an emetic especially valuable in cases of narcotic poisoning, and, externally, both as a rubefacient (“skin-reddener”), increasing blood flow toward the surface of the skin and, thereby, encouraging the expulsion of toxins, and as a plaster to relieve the pain of arthritic joints, rheumatism, muscle pain, etc.
While unless you’re a particularly adventurous DIY cook there is not much need to make our own Dijon at home, the process the mustard seeds undertake to make this fiery condiment could easily be replicated in most kitchens, as you would expect from something that has been popular since the Middle Ages.
Once the seeds are picked over and sorted they’re soaked, crushed, liquids and flavourings are added as possible, the mixture is cooked, cooled and then you’re ready to go. If you’re interested, just Google ‘Dijon Mustard recipe’ and you’ll be delivered a couple of very good results.
So what to do with a good jar of Dijon? My recipes this month, not by design but by natural inclination are all unashamedly French in inspiration and origin.
First, we have my version of Leeks Vinaigrette in a recipe that follows on from last months feature on the humble leek. Whilst my plans for the months recipes fell elsewhere, David Lebovitz’ description of various Leeks Vinaigrette in My Paris Kitchen captured my imagination - especially as my plate of blanched leeks, before I added my own toppings of capers, chopped eggs and anchovies (embellishments I’ll happily put on anything left to my own devices) - started off being doused in the thing I probably use my jar of Dijon (along with a dab of oil and a spritz of red wine vinegar) for the most: a no-recipe classic, paired down vinaigrette I’ve been making for as long as I’ve been cooking.
Next, we’re in the vague region of my old home in Brittany with a stunning pork chop, pan fried, rested and then served in a creamy, Dijon pan sauce. Pork is ‘the’ product of the region (well, along with all the usual crops, apples and my adored Cancale oysters), and a favourite plat du jour of mine. It was the best pork chop of my life, simply served with mashed potato and a pan gravy at Le Relais de Princes in Combourg that taught me how sublime a perfectly sourced and cooked chop could be, so here I’ve not done much, except fry down a shallot in the pan juices while the chops rest before stirring through a bit of single cream, white wine and mustard to provide a tangy foil for the pork’s richness, the vinegar notes of the mustard coming into their own.
Finally, another French preparation with white wine, shallots, Dijon mustard and cream I could not help but include is my Mussels Dijonnaise, which whilst containing similar ingredients shows off a very different side to the mustard, letting the smooth, slightly earthy note you get when you unscrew a jar and take a whiff shine through instead. Dijonnaise is usually the term for when Dijon and mayonnaise are mixed together for a condiment (something Amora do better than Maille is this pre-made in a jar, great with crisp French Fries) but here I’ve taken a bit of licence to transform the creaminess of a good mayonnaise to cream for a mussel liquor that elevates my beloved moules mariniere a little further than usual.
I love Dijon mustard. I bulk buy Dijon mustard, and while this edition of ingredient has been less an education and more of a love letter to one of my favourite ingredients than usual, I hope I’ve at least persuaded you why it deserves a spot on your dinner rotation this month, and not just dabbed on the side of something else. This month make Dijon your star ingredient.