Though not as sexy as the exotic chilli pepper – gleaming in its nail-polish red – home-grown mustard arguably has the edge in the kitchen. It is not only invaluable as a condiment, but its flavour, far richer than the chilli pepper, can be used in a host of dishes.
I have recently rediscovered the fierce pleasure of making my own from Colman's Mustard powder. You just mix with cold water – hot water prevents the reaction that produces the heat in mustard – and leave to mature for 10 minutes or so. As a child, I was told that the harder you mixed, the stronger the result – though this might have been said to overcome juvenile inertia. I've also heard that using cold milk produces milder mustard – but who wants mild English mustard?
The whole point of English mustard is its ferocious, sharp heat. Possibly due to my lifelong intake, I think nothing goes better with plump English sausages, a juicy pork pie or Scotch eggs (a tube of Colman's is essential in any picnic hamper). I insist on a dab with roast beef and often feel the urge with lamb, despite the risk of confirming the ancient dictum that "mustard with mutton is the sign of a glutton".
Watered to a thin fiery sauce, it brings life to fresh tripe. This glutinous offal has already been cooked when you see it in the butcher, so all you need do is cut the tripe (whether honeycomb or thick seam) into squares, drizzle with malt vinegar and dip a corner of each square in the mustard – though I doubt if many will feel tempted to try this gastronomic marriage.
Mustard is a vital accompaniment with the full English breakfast, to combat the fattiness of this morning indulgence. Why hotels don't regard it as an obligatory accompaniment is a mystery. That bloke you'll have seen at breakfast time in a hotel dining room creating a stink about the lack of English mustard is me. The return of the waiter with a few stingy sachets is one of life's great disappointments, but the appearance of a pot of freshly made mustard is liable to provoke loud cheers from this recipient.
Though the Romans introduced mustard plants to this country – perhaps to counter the northern chill – the seeds were not successfully dried to produce powder until the 18th century. Perfected by Jeremiah Colman of Norwich in 1804, English mustard powder is made from a combination of fiery white and nutty-brown mustard seeds. It be instantly made into paste and incorporated with flour in savoury pastry and that most-moreish of snacks, the cheese straw.
Possibly because the French failed to invent mustard powder – their moutardier, or mustard seller, was obliged to lug round a vat of the readymade stuff – the painful pleasure of the English version of this condiment is unknown to them. When X Marcel Boulestin, a leading London restaurateur of the 1930s, spotted a new waiter offering English mustard with steak, he tutted: "He must go." Made solely from brown-mustard seed, French mustard is more salty and complex but far less fiery. There are two types. Dijon is a smooth, light-brown mustard, mostly made in or around the Burgundian capital, though not necessarily, since it lacks PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Wholegrain or à la ancien mustard is slightly milder, since the mustard seeds have not been ground down, which releases the essential oils.
Unsurprisingly, I find Dijon mustard works best in French dishes. It's the perfect smear for a baguette sandwich stuffed with rare roast beef and the ideal accompaniment for cassoulet, boudin noir (which, sad to say, has the edge on our black pudding) and rillettes, along with those tiny gherkins called cornichons. A creamy sauce with a hint of Dijon mustard is marvellous with lamb kidneys or grilled rabbit.
The two main brands available in Britain were competing before the French revolution. Maille ("depuis 1747") is made with spirit vinegar and ideal for use in a salad dressing. Grey Poupon ("depuis 1777") contains 20 per cent white wine and has perceptibly more bite, making it a perfect condiment for meat dishes.
Another venerable mustard gained a plaudit from no less a figure than Elizabeth David: "If you ever see a French mustard in a grey stoneware jar, with a label bearing the name Pommery, buy it." Pommery Moutarde de Meaux is a high-quality grain mustard made with vinegar. One brand of Dijon mustard that you won't see on sale in Britain is Amora, which sells for a modest €1.89 (£1.70) per kilogram in French supermarkets. Though lacking the subtlety of more expensive brands, it is fine for use in cooking and dressings. Possibly this economical treat has not crossed the Channel due to the slim profit margins on big bottles.
Jeremy Lee, the acclaimed chef at the Blue Print Café in London, is a great advocate for mustard – English and French. "Both have their qualities," he says. "The sharp, clean heat of English mustard is best with a joint of roast beef. You also want to apply it when making Welsh rarebit, to cut the excessive luxury of that treat."
Lee has in mind the magnificent Welsh rarebit made by his friend Fergus Henderson of St John. Cook one tablespoon of flour in a pan with a little butter until "it smells biscuity". Stir in one teaspoon of English mustard powder and half a teaspoon of cayenne, then add 200ml of Guinness with "a very long splash" of Worcester and melt in 450g grated cheddar. Pour into a shallow container and allow to set. Spread on toast and grill.
When it comes to the robust dishes of French provincial cooking, Lee's heart lies with Dijon: "It's that unctuous, gorgeous creamy quality. I slap it on rillettes like there's no tomorrow. The French tripe sausage and ouilette suddenly makes sense with Dijon mustard. When you're cooking with Dijon mustard, the more heat you apply, the more it is tempered."
For the Blue Print's signature starter, a delicious smoked-eel sandwich with mustard sauce and creamed horseradish (see recipe), Lee reaches for Grey Poupon. "I adore it madly," he says. "It's got a little extra zing and zip beyond other Dijons."
In France, mustard-lovers can indulge their passion at two Maille (pronounced "my") shops in Dijon and Paris. These sell premium variations, such as Dijon mustard made with Chablis, from mustard pumps like the beer engines in British pubs. The boutiques also offer exotic mustards. Top-selling flavours are currently sun-dried tomato and pepper, morel mushroom and blackcurrant. Mustard aficionados on this side of the Channel have a chance to sample some of Maille's premium mustards since the company is opening a pop-up boutique in London's Old Spitalfields Market on 13 to 17 July.
Marie-Hélè* Greczka, who manages the Maille boutiques in France, explained the combinations that will be offered to London mustard-fanciers. "I love rocket salad with a pesto-mustard dressing and baked salmon with Dijon mustard and spinach," she says. "Mustard can be used on marinades, dips and mayonnaise. Just a little will enhance a dish a great deal." She added that the most surprisingly successful combination with mustard was dessert. "We once developed a peach pie with peach and chilli mustard and an apple pie with apple and cinnamon mustard," she says.
English producers are proving that we can manage mustardy invention on this side of the Channel. The 14 fine flavours produced by Island Mustard on the Isle of Wight include horseradish, ginger and orange, and Irish stout. Wiltshire Tracklements has developed nine distinctive mustards, including green peppercorn and lemon. The nine mustards sold by Fortnum & Mason include a particularly excellent honey flavour. With large whole grains, it is the caviar of condiments.
But for the most radical mustard innovation we must turn to – who else? – Heston Blumenthal. The sorcerer of Bray has produced a mustard-flavoured ice cream for Waitrose. Claimed to be "the first-ever commercially available savoury ice cream", it contains 8 per cent Pommery Moutard de Meaux. It intrigues the palate with a strong, true mustardy flavour and a slight prickle of heat. Speckled with mustard grains, it is very good but rather rich – you wouldn't want too much. How would you have it? "It is brilliant served with chilled soups like gazpacho, cold meats, smoked fish, hot or cold ham and tomato salads."
I am doubtful about his meat suggestions. It is too rich and creamy to partner fatty meats in the way of traditional mustard. But it would go well with fish, in particular crab and, of course, eel. Mustard Savoury Ice Cream costs £2.79 for 300ml at Waitrose.
Smoked eel sandwich with mustard cream, creamed horseradish and pickled sweet red onion
By Jeremy Lee
Two large slices of sourdough bread, each cut in two
100g sliced smoked eel
White wine vinegar
Half a small red onion
To make the pickled sweet red onion: dissolve a couple of pinches of sugar in 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar.
Thinly slice half a small red onion and steep in the sweet vinegar for an hour or so beforehand.
To make the mustard cream, mix together 1 teaspoon of sugar and one-and-a-half teaspoons of white wine vinegar with 2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of thick cream to make it smooth and tempered.
Grill half-slices of sourdough bread on a ribbed griddle until browned nicely on both sides. Butter the toast.
Take one half-slice of toast and spread it with mustard cream. Layer on generous pieces of eel (around 50g per person) and then spread with creamed horseradish.
Top with another half-slice of buttered toast, press down and serve.