This year the company was bought by Uni-lever to tuck into a food portfolio that embraces Van den Bergh, Birds Eye Wall's, Brooke Bond, Batchelors. At pounds 150m it was surely a snip, since mustard is the world's most widely traded spice, far more significant than pepper or chillies.
But Colman's English mustard is more than that. It is a precious national asset, a spice with a unique place in British cooking, hot as cayenne powder and pungent as some fresh chillies. Eurosceptics and patriots alike will recognise its essentially English John Bull/John Redwood quality; you serve hot English mustard - never French - with English roast beef, Bradenham and York hams, Melton Mowbray pork pies, and you put it on Cornish mackerel and North Sea herring, not to mention Welsh rarebit.
But not only is mustard Britain's only native spice. Mustard powder is actually a British invention. This may come as a surprise, given the fame of Dijon mustard and Moutarde de Meaux, not to mention German mustard. But consider, these mustards are not made from dry powder. They are wet, brown, grainy slurries. In the trade they are known as wet mustards, whereas hot English mustard is made from dry mustard powder (as are modern, ready- made liquid mustards sold in tubes and jars).
Jeremiah Colman didn't invent the process of extracting the primrose- coloured flour. The "royal flower of mustard", as the tiny flecks of spicy dust were first known, was an invention credited to Mrs Clements of Durham in 1720. Continental mustards, and the English mustards of the day, were made by steeping the grain then crushing the whole seed. The mustard "flour" was thus dissolved in the soaking medium (grape juice, wine vinegar, ale, water, even) and the husks were removed by sieving.
Considering the size of the mustard seed what Mrs Clements did was remarkable. She decided that the seeds, tiny as they were, could be milled like wheat, cracking open to release the minuscule volume of dry matter within.
It was a hit. She won the endorsement of George I, though this was no great shakes, since our monarch was an unpopular, suet-pudding eating German who hated England and never attempted to master our language.
Jeremiah Colman was a flour miller who industrialised Mrs Clements's invention, turning a cottage industry into a worldwide concern, contracting farmers to devote tracts of the fens to producing this fecund crop. It was said that he made his fortune by the mustard people left on the sides of their plates, but much of his success was due to innovative marketing. Colman's set up their own advertising department as far back as 1870, dramatically raising the profile of their mustard. They created the bull's head image, which has became an icon. In the late 1890s they hired artists of the calibre of Haz (John Hassall) to create memorable posters.
Any and every opportunity was grasped. In 1909 they suggested adding mustard to chicken feed to increase egg production. In the 1920s they promoted mustard as a medication, extol-ling the benefits of plasters and baths, a treatment they dubbed sinapism (sinapis is the biological name of the mustard seed.) In 1926 they launched The Mustard Club, which generated a vast amount of free publicity. The campaign was famously composed by Dorothy L Sayers, the crime writer, then a young copywriter.
Some might say the least significant date in Colman's great history was 1963, when they introduced ready-made mustard in jars and tubes. For me, the pungent flavour is diminished by the stabilising additives: flour, vinegar, sugar and salt. But you can still buy dry mustard and make your own, so it's a mild complaint.
But this is l995, and the new mustard crop will be harvested in a few weeks' time. Colman's crop manager, Chris Lynch, agreed to take me to meet some of the farmers who grow it, thus scotching scurrilous local stories that the whole crop is now imported from Canada.
Here, well met on a windy crossroads not many miles into Lincolnshire, we find the brothers John and George Hoyle, third-generation mustard farmers. Their link with the Colmans goes back a long way. The brothers well remember their grandfather talking about old man Jeremiah, a firm, paternalistic entrepreneur (in 1864 Colman's was the first company in the country to have its own school, and in 1868 the first works' canteen). Jeremiah was a man of Falstaffian girth. Every August when he came out to nearby Wisbech to see the new crop they sat him at a table with a circular piece removed to accommodate his paunch.
The brothers quickly made it clear that rumours of the death of local mustard farming are greatly exaggerated. They waved at the 80 acres of rustling fields where the pale yellow blooms were fading. "Our fields represent 240 million pots of mustard," says George. "Each acre yields 30,000 pots," explains John.
English mustard is made by blending white and brown seed, half and half, and both are growing here. The brown seed is tiny, 450,000 of them to the kilo; the white is not much bigger, 150,000 to the kilo. You only need three-quarters of a pound of mustard to plant a whole acre (using modern drilling techniques). Four months later it returns a bountiful ton of seed.
So prolific is mustard seed, says Chris Lynch, that early settlers in America gave a literal meaning to trail-blazing. They tossed mustard seeds from their wagons as they travelled west. The seeds germinated, multiplied and spread. They can be seen to this day. "When they flower in June," Chris says, "they form a brilliant yellow path so wide that it can be seen by satellite."
Modern varieties of mustard have been bred to grow to little more than 4ft tall, enabling them to be cropped mechanically. In their childhood the brothers remember what back-breaking work it was scything the giant 12ft tall plants by hand (hence the expression for past it, when you couldn't cut the mustard). Today the crop is collected by a pounds 200,000 combine harvester which cuts, beats, threshes and delivers the tiny seeds by the ton to the Hoyles' barn, where they clean it, shaking it in riddles, then dry it on a moving conveyor, using fan heat.
In the wild, the giant mustard plant spreads like a weed, growing to 10ft and 12ft in parts of Bangladesh and Russia, where the crop is valued not as a condiment but as an oil source. Unexpectedly, mustard oil is very bland. Chris Lynch explains that mustard contains two kinds of oil, fixed oil which has a domestic use, and volatile oil which gives mustard its fiery quality.
Colman's set out to breed a plant with minimal fixed oil, since oil clogs up the milling machinery. It is the volatile oil that they prize, allyl isothiocyanate, which is released by an enzyme (allyl senevol, in case you wondered) within 10 minutes of cold water being added.
This leads Chris to impart some cookery information. Only use cold water to activate dry mustard: heat kills the hot ingredient. When heated, mustard acquires a pleasant nutty flavour, so you need not be fearful of adding generous quantities to sauces to go with rabbit, herring and mackerel. It's delicious mixed with herbs and smothered on a rack of lamb before roasting. Or, Chris's favourite, sprinkled dry into scrambled egg as they cook.
You can't make your own dry mustard powder, but you can make continental mustards. These recipes are from The Compleat Mustard by Rosamond Man and Robin Weir (pounds 12.95, available from Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 1NN, 0171-221 1992).
This produces a smooth, mild, Dijon-style mustard - not quite so bright yellow as Dijon's Dijon, but very good. The amount of mustard this recipe makes depends on the swelling powers of the seed, and the fineness of the sieve.
Makes 300-500ml/12-34 pint
175g/6oz brown mustard seed
300ml/12 pint unsweetened grape juice
3 cloves, ground in a spice grinder
15 peppercorns, crushed in a mortar
12 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons dried chervil
12 teaspoon ground nutmeg
14 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon Maldon salt
Soak the mustard seed in the grape juice, mixing in the herbs thoroughly. Leave for 36-48 hours, topping up with a little liquid if necessary; the seeds should be just covered. Cover the jar or bowl but don't seal tightly.
Place in a food processor and whizz for three minutes, using the metal blade, then leave to stand for three hours. Reprocess for five minutes. Pour into a conical strainer (mesh size six per cm/15 per in) and repeat the process.
Spoon the mustard into small jars and store, out of direct light, for a least two weeks before using, preferably a month. The flavour is good for up to five months, but without colour- preserving sulphur dioxide it goes dark quickly.
Now you have made your Dijon mustard, the world is your mustard pot (you could, of course, cheat and use a bought Dijon to begin with). For flavoured variations, add the following ingredients to 300ml/12 pint Dijon mustard:
Tarragon: 6-8 small sprigs (5cm/2in long) fresh tarragon, finely chopped.
Five herb: 1 teaspoon each of finely chopped parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, shallots.
Green pepper: 2-3 tablespoons green peppercorns, thoroughly drained from brine.
Garlic parsley: 2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped, and 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped.
Mint: 2-3 tablespoons of fresh young mint, very finely chopped.
Three fruits red: 3 tablespoons fresh tomato puree, 1 tablespoon strawberry puree, 1 teaspoon cassis (it may sound mad, but it's a traditional mustard and very good).
MOSTARDA DI CREMONA
This is what the Italians do with mustard. Serve it with cold meats. The modern recipe below uses crystallised fruits.
Makes about 700g/112lb
250g/9oz caster sugar
6 tablespoons brown mustard seed
pinch of Maldon salt
14 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
450g/1lb assorted crystallised fruits (pear, orange, cherry, pumpkin, quince, for example)
Dissolve the sugar in 150ml/14 pint water, add the mustard seed, salt and pepper flakes and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Allow to cool then stand for 24 hours.
Return to the pan, bring to the boil, then strain through a metal strainer and again return to the pan, with the crystallised fruit. Simmer for 10- 15 minutes, gently, then remove the fruit to sterilised jars and pack tightly.
Pour the syrup over the fruit, cool and then cover. If the sugar/mustard syrup crystallises, it has been reduced too much, so reboil it with a little extra water added. !Reuse content