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How English mustard almost lost its name

Jars of mustard English mustard's kick comes from the way white and brown seeds are milled

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England's mustard farmers are now harvesting the country's only commonly grown spice. But yields are down, and more farmers are needed to increase English mustard stocks.

"It is a lovely job and a lovely way of life," says James Burgess, a mustard grower in Lincolnshire.

"It's nice to see once you've completed the field and finished the harvest - it's a lovely feeling."

Give your food a mustard kick

Baked potato

Today there are as few as 14 farmers growing the crop in its historical home of East Anglia.

The group supplies the Colman's brand - which turns 200 years old in 2014 - with the seeds to make its famously fiery English mustard.

East Anglia remains England's main mustard-growing region, although other independent growers do exist in Yorkshire and in the Cotswolds.

Poor weather this year has meant that this year's mustard yields are "down 20% on average" in East Anglia.

However in a normal year growers in the region harvest a total of 1400-1500 tonnes of mustard seed to sell to Colman's, earning around £590 per tonne, says Michael Sly, chairman of the English Mustard Growers Co-operative.

English mustard's distinctive fiery kick comes from the way it is made, with a mixture of white and brown seeds milled into pure flour, explains miller John Saverin.

It is this pure milled flour which makes mustard powder. Sugar, salt, wheat, spice and citric acid is added to make a Colman's jar of pre-made mustard.

Pots of mustard seeds

Hear the story of English mustard on BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme

The seeds work together to give off the heat in English mustard. The white seeds give an "initial kick", whereas "the real long-lasting high, volatile oil levels are in the brown seed", says Mr Saverin.

But five years ago, the centuries-old tradition of mustard-growing in England was on the brink of disappearing.

A small but determined group of growers were responsible for ensuring that Colman's could keep producing a truly English mustard, instead of having to turn to overseas suppliers.

"Back in 2006, 2007 all the growers had a dreadful mustard harvest, probably one of the worst on record," says Michael Sly.

Years of lack of investment in plant breeding, dwindling harvests and poor weather had driven mustard yields down.

A crisis meeting ensued, with some farmers deciding that they did not want to grow the spice anymore.

Fiery flavours

Jar of English mustard
  • Black mustard seeds are commonly used in Indian cuisine and when cooked, their potency vanishes leaving a nutty, bitter flavour
  • Dijon mustard is mixed with unripe grape juice or diluted wine vinegar, which tempers its heat
  • English mustard is made from pure, milled flour, whereas Dijon is made with wet, milled seed, so the heat is diluted
  • Pre-mixed English mustard is made from mustard flour, water, salt, spice and sometimes lemon juice, but unlike Dijon, not vinegar
  • Mustard powder's potency is released when cold water is added to it, causing a chemical reaction

"We were left with 11 growers who said 'right, well we're not going to give in. With some investment, working together, we can make this work,'" explains Mr Sly.

The remaining growers decided to start up the first mustard growers co-operative, which has now expanded to 14 members.

"We took the bull by the horns to help Colman's keep it as English mustard, because they need to produce so much of the seed in England to be able to call it English mustard," says George Hoyles, whose family has been growing mustard in Lincolnshire for four generations.

Most of the remaining growers' families had been farming it for "100 to 140 years", and it was this sense of "history and responsibility" that made them determined to carry on, says Michael Sly.

But convincing other farmers to take up mustard-growing is no easy task.

Third-generation mustard grower Greg Bliss believes that other crops such as oilseed rape and wheat are easier to make money from, and appeal to farmers wanting "an easy life".

"We're competing with [oilseed] rape with bonuses at about £400 a tonne. The wheat price is getting very close to £200 a tonne.

"For a lot of people growing wheat and rape, life is dead simple, whereas we're traditional fen farmers who are growing wheat, rape, mustard, sugar beet, potatoes, onions - a great mix of crops."

But he adds that mustard seed is also now used to make biofumigants, a type of pesticide made from plants, which offers an extra market for growers.

Try it at home

Homemade beer mustard

So why has mustard proved such a tricky crop to grow over the years?

"Colman's used to have a full agronomy department," which looked after plant breeding and seed development, says seed expert Tony Guthrie.

But "all that was trashed" when parent company Reckitt and Colman prepared to sell the brand.

Mr Guthrie was called in to investigate why mustard yields had been mysteriously declining, and discovered that it was down to a vital error being made by farmers.

White mustard is "self-incompatible", meaning that an individual plant cannot pollinate itself. Instead it needs to receive pollen from a different family of mustard seed.

But growers had been sifting out a small-sized family member of the seed when they planted new crops in order to produce larger, uniform-sized seeds.

Mustard medicine

  • Foods such as mustard, wasabi and horseradish contain glucosinolates, which release compounds called isothiocyanates when digested and broken down
  • Isothiocyanates give mustard its pungency, and research suggests that these compounds reduce the risk of cancers such as breast cancer, bladder cancer and colon cancer
  • Foods such as broccoli, cabbage and pak choi are also good for glucosinolates
  • But people in the UK may not eat enough of these types of food because their pungent taste and smell put some people off

Source: Professor Derek Stewart of the James Hutton Institute in Dundee

So as the smallest white mustard seed was gradually phased out, mustard plants were not pollinating each other properly.

It was only by some scientific sleuthing that the mystery of the disappearing mustard was solved.

Colman's has survived on English mustard powder for almost 200 years, but the spice has been used European cooking for much longer.

A cookbook manuscript produced in 1379 helps to pinpoint the moment when mustard started being used as "a common ingredient used in European kitchens", says William Sitwell, author of A History of Food in 100 Recipes.

The manuscript called Le Viandier was written by Taillevent, a cook working for the French king.

"We start seeing mustard used in his book. And this is a book then remained in print for 300 years so really was a seminal book."

And in 1390 "The Forme of Cury" was written by King Richard II's master cooks, cury meaning cookery in Middle English.

It was "the first time that a book was published with recipes that cooks could use" and featured "quite a lot of mustard as an ingredient", says Mr Sitwell.

According to the book "Traditional Foods of Britain" by Laura Mason, a type of mustard made in Tewkesbury was so famous in the 1500s that Shakespeare even wrote it into a line in his play Henry IV: "His wit's as thick as Tewkesbury Mustard" - an insult used by character Sir John Falstaff.

Tewkesbury mustard was originally made with ground mustard mixed with horseradish. These were then made into balls and dried for storage, which could then be combined with vinegar or wine to make a paste.

Today however it is the distinctive vivid yellow, smooth paste which continues to be recognised around the globe as true English mustard.

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