Ed Smith explores the essential components of his kitchen cupboard. This time, mustards from Fitz Fine Foods
Images: Ed Smith
She pauses mid-bite, probably her third or fourth of the meal. Eyes narrow, menacingly. “Is there... is there mustard in this?” she hisses incredulously.
Others less accustomed to the shrill tone and the daggers that appear to be flying from her tongue, would deny the accusation. Then wilt. Then apologise unreservedly and head back to the kitchen to whistle up something more agreeable.
“Of course I put mustard in it, dear. It’s vital. What else would provide both sweet high notes, deep savoury tones, and piquant and peppery tickle at the roof of your mouth seconds after you’ve swallowed. Why, without it, the sauce would be cloying, lifeless, dull. Yes, yes, I know you don’t like mustard as a *condiment*, but as an ingredient, a *seasoning*, why would you find it so offensive when it adds so much? And anyway, you can barely taste it.”
“But I can tell that it’s in there,” she growls, and pushes the plate away.
This loving exchange between me and my wife occurs every four days or so—she denying the virtues of mustard, me vehemently disagreeing. But I am right. Like every stable genius, I know I am.
Ground, cracked or bruised
There are many mustard varieties, just take a look at the offering at Fitz Fine Foods, the vinegar and mustard specialists. Yet they are all essentially the same thing: whole, ground, cracked or bruised mustard seeds mixed with water and acid (vinegar or lemon, typically) to create a paste. They can be tangy or sweet, fruity or savoury, depending on what (if anything) they’ve been combined with—a honey, a sour fruit such as gooseberries, the ‘must’ skins from wine grapes or something even more exotic.
Three types of mustard spring to mind as essential for any store cupboard: English hot mustard, which is bright yellow, made from fully ground seeds, and makes your nose hairs stand on end; Dijon, which is a pale beige, calmer than English and smooth, almost mayonnaise-like in consistency; and wholegrain, the mildest and often sweetest of the lot, with the mustard seeds only providing heat should you chew into them.
Each of those three appeals to different tastes. As a condiment they all work with pork and beef dishes—you know this already. But in fact, I’d posit that these mustards are essential not because they’re a useful condiment, but rather that they’re ingredients that add value to a variety of dishes, both planned and casually spontaneous—which is why it’s so good to have a few jars close to hand at all times.
Liven things up
Let me count the ways: mustard acts as a stabiliser when making an emulsion such as mayonnaise, hollandaise or vinaigrette, essentially helping liquids and fats bind together, preventing curdling or splitting; it adds vibrancy to any dairy-based sauce; can be chucked, last minute, into the cooking juices of, say, chicken, to liven things up a bit; or might already have been used as part of a marinade; drop it into cooked potatoes (whether mashed or boiled, or a new potato salad); fold it into creme fraiche or yoghurt to be mixed through raw, julienned celeriac; combine with honey to glaze carrots or parsnips; add to fried mushrooms just before transferring them onto your toast; make a dressing for something crisp, sharp and bitter, like chicory or radicchio; stir into an onion gravy. I could go on.
Somewhere, I’m sure, there’ll be rules as to which of the above dishes require Dijon, English or wholegrain, but I think you can choose depending on your mood and how noticeable you want the mustard to be.
More often than not, I find myself adding Dijon, as I do in this smoked haddock rarebit. That’s partly because I don’t want to hide the smoke of the fish, the savoury cheese, the glossy béchamel sauce. But mostly because I live in hope that it will indeed prove to be a vital, but secret element.
And yet she always knows.