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A bit of bite to whet your appetite

Mustard with mutton is the sign of a glutton, the old phrase goes. Why this should be so is problematical, and always arouses in me a vision of a rural stagecoach, an inn and a portly gent sitting down, the morning after, to what seems to have been standard breakfast fare: cold mutton. So he starts himself up by putting dollops of mustard on his chop. To me, that makes him a sensible man.

Mustard is an enhancer of appetite, solving queasy mornings and other such disturbances to the lovely flow of food and drink. A good spoonful of straight mustard pickle goes down a treat.

It is a very old condiment (and medicinal plant, as those of us who used to be treated with mustard plasters will tell you), and its Greek name survives in the Italian word for ordinary mustard, senape. Should you fear that you may be poisoned in the near future, remember that mustard is a stimulant emetic: it acts so quickly on the gastric sensory nerves that it does its work long before any damage is done. Just a little in hot water. Phew]

As far as eating is concerned, most people are puzzled by the proliferation of different kinds of mustard. I noted eight, not all of them interchangeable, on my own kitchen shelves; and the varieties, as Geraldene Holt told us a few months ago in our sister Sunday newspaper, are constantly multiplying. I believe it, and it is a change for the good.

Several decades ago, after visits to Chelsea football ground, I used to treat myself to a nice rare steak in a restaurant across the road from my flat. The waiter would come up with his mustard pots (two) and ask whether I preferred French or English. I felt quite revolutionary in telling him I wanted both: mixing them did produce a reasonable facsimile of a moutarde forte (the French of those days being cloying and sweet, the English strong and severe).

As far as I am concerned, however, the different varieties of mustard - not just the brands but also the national varieties - are largely a matter of marketing. And let no PR man for a certain brand (eg, Grey Poupon) tell me that it is eternally unchanged. Amora, the moutarde forte that was my childhood favourite and remained so for many years, has become progressively blander.

The only constant I know in the mustard world has been Colman's mustard powder: that which, left on the side of the plate, made Mr Colman's fortune; an example of waste making money, on which capitalists quickly seized.

Otherwise, the selling of mustard is a matter of pots: the more ceramic and rural looking, the more obscure and impenetrable the corking and sealing, the higher the price.

Now there are undoubtedly amateurs of German mustards, those yellowish concoctions that you pour on to Braunschweiger and Bratwurst alike (and which one deliciously mixes mit Ketchup und Kurri to make the admirable Kurriwurst - with a Berlin roll and a schnapps), but I do not place much faith in them.

To me, a mustard is not a mustard if it lacks some elementary bite. If you can eat it by the spoonful (true, at home I am known, for my habit of eating food extremely hot, as Asbestos Mouth), it is not my kind of mustard.

Dijon is the self-proclaimed mustard capital of the world, and I am not unhappy to report that, much as I like the town and Burgundy generally (it has had to make up for its foul climate with art and fine food), its reputation - due to simple, elementary greed and excessive marketing - is on the wane.

Like most things French, Dijon mustard is a by-product of frugality: it is a way of using left-over or low-quality wine. Ms Holt says it is 'the tastiest mustard'. I agree. But what does it taste of? Does it taste of mustard? No, it tastes of just about everything but.

The tartest, cleanest and best mustards I have eaten recently - forgive me if my absence from the shores of my childhood have precluded my tasting some of the newer British mustards, which sound admirable - are Californian mustards. Again wine, with which mustard seed (white, yellow, brown, black) is mixed or ground, is at the heart of the matter.

California produces lots of it, and much of it not very good. But as Californians have delicate palates and the United States is a mustard desert (the sickly, awful, ever-present Gulden's is an abomination), they have mixed mustards with just about everything: when slightly sweetened with honey and reinforced with jalapeno chillies, it is an admirable concoction.

I don't need to tell you the uses of mustard (above all in a vinaigrette, for which do not use mustard that has been mixed with anything else), but once again, this is an area for cooks to explore. Spread on meat in grilling, on fish in baking, mixed delicately with winter vegetables (cabbage, for example), introduced into eggs en cocotte, as an ingredient in any brown sauce, mustard does just what it is supposed to do. Its volatile oils go to work, stimulating appetite, suppressing grease, lifting up herbs and generally, yes, making you a glutton.