There's a story behind everything, even the most innocuous or ignoble object; a process, a history, a time when someone devoted hours , or even years of their life to learning the intricacies of this very particular thing. It's easy to take the small things for granted, and of course, to be weighted down, or invested in the minutia of relevance for every. little. thing. can seem overwhelming. Still, it's fun to dip in, to get curious about the most random of subjects. Mustard, for instance.
It's a weedy, seedy plant, a member of the brassica family, whose bright yellow flowers are blooming brightly on our local hillsides even as I type these words. It's an invasive plant, whose leaves and seeds have been consumed across the globe, as far back as the Stone Age. King Tut was buried with a goodly supply of the seeds, for his presumed use in the afterlife; eternity would be a drag indeed, without the proper condiments. Sumerians and Romans consumed the seeds, greens, and flowers, and Europeans chewed the whole seeds at table in lieu of pepper, before the advent of the spice trade. The seeds are heavily used in India as a staple seasoning; an entire class of fermented foods, achar, relies heavily on mustard seeds, and the oil pressed from them, for preservation, and the whole seeds are often used as aromatics in the base of many dishes there. Even the very word, mustard, has etymological roots that go far back in history; the word mustarde in Middle English literally means condiment. Mostarde, in Old French, is derived from the root word Mosto, which relates to grape must, or the young, unfermented wine that was often used to soak the mustard seeds in. In the recipe above, we use beer instead of wine to soak the seeds, but the truth is that the soaking can be done with anything from wine to kombucha to apple cider vinegar, and still yield delicious results. Want to get wild, want to delve deeper? Check out the wealth of mustard recipes on our site; the Cherry Mostarda is an especial treat, and the Fermented Honey Mustard is lovely as well.
There are about 40 species of mustard plants, several of which are classified by the color of their ripened seeds. White mustard, which originates in the Mediterranean basin, is used to make a smooth, bright yellow, French's type mustard, the kind you'd pout on a hot dog. Brown mustard, hailing from the Himalayas, is now used as the primary mustard seed for "stone-ground"style mustards in the Americas. Black mustard is most popular in the Middle East and Asia Minor, where it originated, but the difficulty of harvest has limited its appeal in the trades to other parts of the world. The seeds contain selenium and magnesium, along with their peppery kick.
Of course, the uses of mustard go beyond the culinary. Mustard is widely used in organic agriculture as a biofumigant; that funky characteristic brassica small is indicative of a highly active chemical constituent known as glucosinolates, which react with water to release fumes that deter a variety of agricultural insect and fungal pests. In this process, the flowering plant is tilled into the top several inches of soil and tarped to trap the gases that result when the plants begin to break down, eliminating pests that might otherwise overrun an entire year's crop. This process shows a lot of promise for the eventual phasing out of the harmful fungicides that trouble the strawberry industry in particular. While the idea of mustard gas might call to mind images of chemical warfare, the truth is that the mustard gas used in World War 1 was named for its bright yellow color, and is not in fact derived from mustard plants at all.
Mustard greens are a easy to grow in the garden, and reseed themselves at an astonishing rate if left to go to seed. The yellow flowers have a sweet floral smell, something at odds with the pungent flavor and scent of the greens. Bees love the flowers for their ease of access to the sweet nectar. If the flowers are left to mature into seeds, the seeds from mustard greens are easily harvested, and can be used to make a prepared mustard as well. Wait until the slender pods, resembling miniature peas or beans, have become dry and papery, and the seeds inside a toasty brown color, before harvesting. Once they have been harvested, hang them upside down in a cool dry place inside a pillowcase or paper bag to dry for another week or more. The bag or pillowcase will catch any seeds that open and fall out of their own accord, but a pillowcase makes it easy to roll the chaff from the seeds. A fan is helpful, for blowing the spent seed wrappers away, while leaving the heavier seeds clean behind. Seeds from mustard greens may have a more pungent flavor than the white or brown mustard seeds sold in the bulk herb area of our local markets, but their horseradish-like flavor makes for a spicy condiment. One of our favorite foragers, Pascal Baudar, has several recipes (online and in his wild foraging books) for using wild invasive mustard seeds in similar ways. Seeds from a variety of mustard greens (Southern Giant Curled, Red Giant) mixed with yellow mustard seeds won us a blue ribbon at the county fair some years back! The starts are available in the nursery now, and it's a good time to plant mustard in the garden, to get in a crop before the summer heat hits (most mustards prefer to grow in cooler conditions rather than the heat of summer, which can make them bolt.)
Each mustard plant allowed to complete its life cycle will make hundreds of seeds, and if you are lucky, some will fall to the ground and spring up again in the following years. A beautiful purple patch of mustard in my garden is always left to go to seed, simply for the beauty of the dark, purple-red leaves in contrast with the surrounding flowers. There's so many ways to enjoy this spicy, versatile plant, and so many avenues that engaging with it can take us down. No condiment is an island unto itself; the roots and seeds of mustard have spread far and wide, across continents and cultures. How exotic your sandwich must now seem, adorned with this condiment of the ages, spiced with history. Enjoy.
By Jessica Tunis