Where does the word mustard come from?

The word mustard is derived from the Latin mustum or must, the grape juice that the Romans mixed with honey and the ground seeds of the mustard plant (sinapi) to create their mustum ardens, or ‘burning must’.

The plant originates from Eurasia and was first thought to be cultivated in India.

What does the mustard plant look like?

The plant has bright yellow flowers (like commercially grown rape – it belongs to the same Cruciferae family) and grows to between 1 and 3 metres in height.

There are three main varieties: white (Brassica alba) brown (Brassica juncea) and black (Brassica nigra).

The seeds vary in size between 1 and 2 mm in size and they are harvested when they are dry in the pods. Most mustards today are made from brown mustard seed but combinations of all three are also used. Shaken Oak mustards are made from brown and white (the white seeds tend to be more yellow than white and are sometimes called yellow!) seeds.

Mustard seeds have little or no smell. Their heat is released only when the seeds are crushed and mixed with a liquid such as water, vinegar, beer or wine.

Where does the mustard plant originate?

The mustard plant was brought to Britain by the Romans via France and there are numerous Roman recipes that use mustard as an ingredient. However serious mustard production was first recorded in France in the 9th century, usually based in religious establishments and this then spread to Britain in the 9th century.

By the 14th century mustard was being grown in various parts of the country including the area around Tewkesbury, where the mustard was mixed with horseradish and took the name of the town.

Most mustard produced in the Middle Ages was based on using the whole or crushed seeds, mixing them with liquid and letting the mix mature. The mix was often dried, making it easier for transportation, and then liquid added again when required for use.

The milling technique of mustard

In the 18th century, with the developments in milling techniques the husks of the seeds could be more easily removed and the seeds finely ground. The first record of the production of mustard flour (the most common form of mustard used commercially) is credited to Mrs Clements of Durham in 1720 who managed to keep the milling technique used a secret for some time allowing Durham to become the centre of mustard production in the country and allowing herself to accumulate considerable sums of money selling her mustard flour.

Once her milling secret was discovered other entrepreneurs began to invest in mustard production. Most notable in the 19th century was Jeremiah Colman who began milling mustard at his flour mill in Norwich. With his brilliant marketing techniques his mustard became the quintessential English mustard – a finely milled flour, yellow in colour (assisted by the addition of turmeric) and very hot in taste.

Mustard manufacturers in Britain during the 19th and 20th century

During the 19th and early 20th century the British mustard market was dominated by a number of mustard manufacturers producing finely ground, smooth mustards. Besides Colman’s, the other easily available mustards included those made by Taylors, Keen’s, and Gordon’s.

During the latter part of the 20th century the mustard market in the UK changed considerably with companies being absorbed into multi-nationals and also a revival of independent small producers. The 21st century sees many of these small companies making many different kinds of mustards besides the traditional English. Whole-grain, coarse-grain and flavoured mustards continue to grow in popularity with some varieties being influenced by mustards available in other parts of the world.

Mustard as a world-wide condiment

Mustard is now a world-wide condiment and there are numerous companies involved in making, using and marketing the product. The whole or ground seeds are still an important ingredient in cooking, especially in India and Asia, while in Europe and the Americas the processed seeds are still used as a table condiment, and even more importantly, as a vital ingredient in processed foods.