We in Britain have long had a love for spice. That might be a surprising fact to many who believe that our food is bland and uninteresting. Look at our history, though, and you will find that so much of our sea-faring and globe-trotting has had other people’s spices as the target. There have been wars fought and land seized for the want of pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon, but mustard has never caused any bloodshed as it’s always been here.
Mustard is a common little plant that grows in even the most inhospitable of environments. It was first used thousands of years ago, mentioned in Sanskrit writings from 3,000 BC and by Egyptians a thousand years later. In these modern times Canada produces nearly 85% of the world’s mustard powder. It’s one of the most popular and widely used spices and condiments.
The Mustard Book is both a history of the seed as well as a cookbook. It charts its culinary evolution and considers its medicinal applications, but its impact in the kitchen has been more significant and enduring. I suspect it’s been a while since you have had your feet steeped in a warming mustard bath, but it’s likely you have recently had a smear of mustard with your roast beef.
My first memory of mustard is of watching my father mixing the pungent powder with water an hour or so before Sunday lunch. Yes, back in the days before many ready-mixed types, every British larder had a distinctive yellow tin of mustard powder. The authors of this book pass on many gems of information about mustard preparation, and the most surprising of these is that mustard powder should never be mixed with hot water as it has a chemical reaction which spoils the taste.
There are 150 or so recipes in this volume demonstrating the versatility of the spice. There is everything from soups and sauces to pickles and even a couple of desserts (which might offer more novelty than temptation). The recipes for homemade mustards are fascinating and there are several that I’ll soon be testing. There is a raft of commercial mustards available these days but it’s still rather smart to be able to offer one’s guests a condiment made in your very own kitchen. Lots of culinary brownie points with little effort.
Mustard isn’t just for garnishing meat, although the founder of the Colman’s empire was said to have made his fortune from what was left on the side of plates. It’s the prime ingredient in traditional saffron-coloured Piccalilli; Lapin Mustard would just be rabbit without it; and Devilled-anything would be far too angelic if it was omitted. I do have a couple of favourite recipes from this book. The first is for Trieste Spread which is a simple but robust paste of mascarpone and gorgonzola with a little anchovy and caraway seeds along with the mustard. It sounds rather Eastern European, and the connection becomes evident when one remembers that Trieste was part of the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire till 1920. Hungarians do love their caraway seeds.
A must-try recipe is that for Herrings in Oatmeal with Mustard. Herring is still a reasonably economic fish to buy and this traditionally Scottish recipe shows off the taste and texture to great advantage. It’s a healthy oily fish which benefits from a sauce with bite. The oat crust gives a crunch and makes for a tempting golden plateful. A delight for a winter supper.
The Mustard Book is the kind of volume that will be welcomed by the new wave of food lovers who are looking for pure ingredients, slow food, recipes that have endured, and dishes with old-fashioned good taste. A great addition to any cookbook collection, but a book to use and enjoy.
The Mustard Book
Authors: Rosamond Man and Robin Weir
Published by Grub Street
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018