Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mustard: An Ancient Condiment

Inspired by a recent roadtrip through Germany, and being an avid mustard consumer, I decided it was the perfect moment to investigate this tasty and versatile condiment in more depth...

First of all, there are very few places in the world that can match the sheer selection of mustard varieties that Germany has. I remember the very first time I laid eyes on the condiment section of a normal grocery store in Hamburg. Pardon the expression, but it really was a mustard-lover´s wet dream! I happily filled a large portion of my suitcase with a plethora of squeeze tubes, bottles and jars to bring back to Spain with me. 

In virtually any German supermarket, a dizzying array of Senf (mustard) can be found to fit any taste preference, accompaniment, recipe and mood. Furthermore, there are a number of regional styles, which I'll discuss later. 

Where did it originate? 

Although there are records of the Chinese cultivating mustard seed for spice usage more than 3,000 years ago, the Romans were the first known culture to experiment with the actual preparation of mustard as a condiment. They mixed unfermented grape juice, known as must, with ground mustard seeds to create "burning must" (mustum ardens) -- hence the English "must ard", as we know it today.

Curious as to what this original mustard may have tasted like? 
Ancient Roman Mustard Recipe

The Romans brought the custom of using table mustard to Gaul. King Charlemagne, an obvious fan of this imported product, recommended the cultivation of mustard seed throughout the realm. Dijon, France was once considered the mustard Mecca of the world. In the beginning, the name Dijon could only be used for mustards that had been produced in that region. Mustard cultivation and production gradually spread through Germany, and then to England around the 12th century.

How is mustard made?

The process begins with seeds from the mustard plant. The mustard plant itself has a sharp, pungent flavor, and the entire plant is edible. Mustard greens were a common sidedish at my house growing up. I loved the zesty flavor they added to a meal.
Mixing ground mustard seeds with water causes a chemical reaction between chemical compounds within the seed. Prepared mustards have a wide range of "heat" strengths and flavors, depending on the variety of mustard seed and the preparation method

Seeds from the white mustard plant (Sinapis alba) have a less pungent flavor than those of black mustard (Brassica nigra) or brown Indian mustard (Brassica juncea). The temperature of the water and concentration of acids, such as vinegar, also determine the strength of a prepared mustard. Since hotter liquids and stronger acids surpress the enzymes that affect the heat-producing compounds, spicy mustard is made with cold water, while hot water produces a milder condiment.
Despite popular belief, the bright yellow color of the common squeeze bottle mustard doesn't come from the seeds, but from the addition of tumeric root powder. Ground mustard seeds are actually a dullish gray-brown color.
Yellow mustard didn’t come along until the turn of the 20th century. In 1884, two brothers by the name of Robert and George French bought a flourmill in Rochester, New York after their previous flourmill upstate burned down. In 1904, George began experimenting with “creamy salad mustard”. He added turmeric to the traditional recipe for added presentation and color. Yellow mustard premiered at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 as a condiment to put on hot dogs to great fanfare. (Source:

For a more in-depth look, I strongly recommend this short video by the Discovery Channel:
How It's made: Prepared Mustard

German mustards

Despite the fact that there are amazing mustards found all around the globe, I guess my German partner would be disappointed if I didn't specifically mention some of his country's varieties in this article. 

There is no mustard they refer to in particular as being "German" mustard, in the way that the British refer to an "English" mustard. However, German recipes do tend to be less acidic than their American and English counterparts. 

When most people hear "German" mustard, a coarsely-ground sweet, mild blend usually comes to mind (bayerischer Senf). In the Bavarian region, this would be the traditional style, which is made with brown sugar, rather than vinegar. Anything other than this type of mustard on Weißwurst  (a soft white sausage) is considered sacreligiousOne of the most well-known brands of this region, and one of my personal favorites, is Händlmaier.  

The area surrounding Düsseldorf, another famous mustard region, has a signature style similar to Dijon mustard, but with more of a "kick" and darker in color. Unlike Dijon, this blend uses whole seeds instead of powder. Düsseldorf opened Germany's first mustard factory in 1726, and it is still a center of mustard production today. One of their most reknowned factories, Löwensenf, produces various grades of hotness. Of course, being a spicy food fan, my preference is their Extra scharfer Senf ! 

In Eastern Germany, the most popular brand of mustard by far is Bautz'ner Senf. It comes from the medieval town of Bautzen, where there is an entire museum dedicated to their famous product. These mustards tend to have a bit more "bite" that their Bavarian counterparts, but not as spicy as the those in Düsseldorf area.

In addition to these more traditional regional variations, the Germans have become masters of incorporating just about any flavor into their blends. One of my personal favorites is the Feigensenf (fig mustard), which combines especially well with most cheeses.

Speaking of delicious and unique flavors, one of my favorite artesenal blends comes from a family friend in Rutland, Vermont. Find his products here: Big Lenny's Mustards

Lenny's Vermont Maple and Apple Cider Honey mustards truly are a work of art, and don't last long in our house!               

Health Benefits of Mustard

Apart from the wide range of delicious culinary options mustard provides, and being surprising low in caloric content, mustard seeds are full of healthy properties:

  • Mustard seeds are very rich in phyto-nutrients, minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.
  • Mustard seeds are an excellent source of essential B-complex vitamins such as folates, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, pyridoxine (vitaminB-6) and pantothenic acid. These B-complex groups of vitamins help in enzyme synthesis, nervous system function and regulating body metabolism.
  • 100 g of mustards provide 4.733 mg of niacin (vitamin B-3). Niacin helps lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
  • Mustard seeds contain flavonoid and carotenoid antioxidants such as carotenes, zea-xanthin, and lutein. In addition, the seeds provide a small amount of vitamin anti-oxidants such as vitamin A, C, and vitamin K.
  • The seeds are an excellent source of vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the skin from harmful elements.
  • Mustards are rich source of health benefiting minerals. Calcium, manganese, copper, iron, selenium and zinc are some of the minerals especially concentrated in these seeds. 

If you're curious about making your own mustards, these links can help get you started:

Guten Appetit!


  1. I am working my way through the different mustards you kindly gave us - so far the fig is my favourite but I am fickle and that may change....Ha. Good to see you blogging again.

    1. Glad you're enjoying them! Yep, the fig one IS pretty impressive. Try the spicy Löwensenf in salad dressing if you haven't already xx

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