a tale of a few cities


Posted in gastronomy by petercombe on August 21, 2008

“He thinks he’s the Pope’s mustard maker”

-old French saying.


There really was a Grand Moutardier du Pape, back in 14th Century Avignon.  In those days, the Pope vied for power with the monarchy while his own court enjoyed lavish, pomp-filled  dinners.  With mistresses floatingabout, vast hordes of wealth in place as well as power over public opinion, the pontiff’s was often a life of indulgence and political intrigue.

Mustardyellow_1Pope John XXII “The Magnificent” desperate one day for the purple mustard of his hometown of Corrèze, summoned the maker, Monsieur Jaubertie, to his side .  So pleased was he with the outcome that the man was thereafter called  The  Popes’ Mustard Maker.

There are basically three kinds of mustard, white, black  and brown “Chinese”.  The plants themselves are part of the cabbage family and originally grew  as weeds among cereal crops.  All their greens are edible, but the yellow  paste familiar to us  is made with seeds, mostly white and brown.   The black ones are very strong and commonly flavor Indian dishes.  A prepared mustard condiment can have several ingredients, but it usually contains vinegar, oil, salt, and sugar as flavorings.

Mustardfield_1Mustard has many homeopathic uses–it will cause vomiting if poison has been ingested, and stirs up circulation when applied topically.  Back in The Day, mothers were fond of mustard plasters.  Powdered mustard is mixed with water and sandwiched between pieces of cotton, then placed on the chest of an unsuspecting, trusting child already miserable with a wretched cold. 

The heat stirred up is quite remarkable, leaving the skin red and breaking up the offending congestion.  In fact, in the 1200’s, the Earl of Conway tortured Viking prisoners by dipping their heads into barrels of mustard, virtually frying their sinuses and eyeballs.

The great cookbook writer Apicius (scowling man at left, perhaps due to lack of torso) created mustard sauces in ancient Rome, and thus the condiment spread throughout Europe, along with Roman militia.    The French began a serious mustard commerce out of Dijon in the mid-14th century when production became state-regulated.   King Louis XIV, The Sun King, subsequently travelled everywhere with his mustard pot , even favoring the color in his wardrobe.

It became legend, lauded, and made fun of in Europe as a symbol of overindulgence.  The French writer Rabelais, in a satire of 16th Century social and religious  hypocrisy,  invented  a character called Gargantua who required four servants to feed him spoonfuls of mustard in between enormous  servings of meats. 

In 1853, a steam-driven mustard mill was invented by a man named Maurice Grey.  He called his company “Grey”, which later became “Grey Poupon” for some unclear purpose.  Located in Dijon, in the Burgundy region of France, to this day you will find the Grey Poupon Museum at the site of the original store.  It is tiny, charming, and sells great mustard. 

A grey cloud hovered near the refrigerator a few days ago while making my usual salad dressing (It had been a long time since i’d bought Grey Poupon as I’d been buying large jars of Maille. I bought a jar of the Poupon at a Costco here in San Francisco a few weeks ago), i opened the lid and noticed a sweeter scent.  The inside even looked different – its contents seemed suspended in a pall of gelatinous like substance. I turned the jar and there it was of course, Grey Poupon is now owned by Kraft.


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