June 2007

Mustard making in Dijon

“In ancient Hindu times, mustard was considered a form of Viagra; it gave one the appetite and desire to lie with a woman,” explained Bénédicte Clarke, the tour guide at La Moutarderie Fallot a mustard mill located in the medieval town of Beaune, 20 minutes south of Dijon, France.

If that's the case, I'm going to be having a very quiet evening. Using a mortar and pestle, I'm blending my own batch of mustard. At the rate I'm going, my concoction will be lucky to excite a canary. But as a self-confessed condiment junkie, I'm committed to learning more about the world of fine mustard, so I keep on grinding.

The daily grind

The skilled use of grindstones is an important step in making authentic Dijon mustard. Founded in 1840, Edmond Fallot is one of the few moutarderies that still uses millstones. Situated in its original stone building just steps away from historic Hôtel-Dieu, a charity hospital founded in 1443, La Moutarderie Fallot is committed to preserving the artisanal techniques of the past.

First the seeds are ground until a juice is released. “You must continue until it's creamy,” Clarke says to our group of novice mustard makers, adding a splash of vinegar, water and salt to our mortars and pestles.

While early craftsmen could blend 25 kilos of seeds per day, I've worked up a sweat with less than a teaspoonful. The muscular fellow to my left has whipped his blend to the consistency of smooth mayonnaise, while mine more closely resembles birdseed at the bottom of a budgie's cage. I increase the pressure and grinding pace.

Legacy of taste

According to Clarke, the labour-intensive grinding process pays dividends in terms of taste as heat developed through the mechanical process can destroy the seeds' delicate flavours. But grinding takes time. La Moutarderie Fallot produces only 16,000 pots per day, whereas mass production facilities are able to deliver that much hourly.

Equally important is the type of seed. Although Beaune is located in the Côte-d'Or, one of France's most fertile farming regions, visitors won't see fields of graceful mustard among its rolling landscape of vineyards and valleys. While potash-rich ashes from charcoal-burning kilns once fertilized the region's mustard fields, a drop in industrial production killed local mustard cultivation. Now 98 percent of the mills' mustard seed comes from Saskatchewan and is blended everywhere from Japan to South America.

Renaissance of mustard

Authentic taste is closely linked to the terroir – a sense of place discernable in the flavour of the food. La Moutarderie Fallot is committed to returning to those culinary roots. It recently completed a rigorous three-year process for its Moutarde de Bourgogne to qualify for Protected Geographical Indication status, a designation awarded by the European Union Commission to recognize regional authenticity.

“It was no easy task,” explains owner Marc Désarménien. “First the mustard must be blended in Burgundy, be made of Bourgogne seeds and use white wine verjus rather than vinegar, water and salt. Many of the original grape vines were destroyed during World War Two.”

My own fledgling batch of mustard has finally reached the proper consistency. To my inexperienced palate, it tastes surprisingly good. Now it's time to taste mustard made by the pros. Flavour choices include cassis (blackcurrant), tarragon and pain d'épice (gingerbread).

I scoop up a mound of tarragon mustard and pop it in my mouth. Too late, I realize that the wasabi green colour should have been a tipoff. A sting bursts through my sinus cavity. With tears running down my face, I note that while authentic mustard may not duplicate the effect of Viagra exactly, its potency stills packs an unforgettable punch.

Useful information

Reservations for guided tours of the Fallot mustard mill can be made at the Beaune Tourism Office. Hotel le Cep, located in the heart of the walled old city of Beaune, offers four-star luxury accommodation in a 16th-century building.

(Michele Peterson is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has recently been published in the travel anthology Go Your Own Way: Women Travel the World Solo.)

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