The seeds of success

English mustard, our only home-grown spice, has long been cherished as the perfect accompaniment to traditional meat dishes. Yet French mustard is much better for cooking with. Michael Bateman explains
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Indy Lifestyle Online

MUSTARD IS our only home-grown spice, so it's not surprising that it assumes such importance in the national diet. Historically it has been an invaluable aid to making British foods more palatable, and has long been used as an accompaniment to roast beef, sausages, bacon, ham, Welsh rarebit and pork pies.

MUSTARD IS our only home-grown spice, so it's not surprising that it assumes such importance in the national diet. Historically it has been an invaluable aid to making British foods more palatable, and has long been used as an accompaniment to roast beef, sausages, bacon, ham, Welsh rarebit and pork pies.

It's particularly friendly to this sort of food because mustard combines with fat to form a digestible emulsion. This is why a little mustard powder helps to stabilise an egg- based mayonnaise, and why mustard thickens a salad dressing.

English mustard is quite unlike French mustard. Ours is made from a fine flour produced when the husks have been milled and sieved, and is powerful enough to bring tears to the eyes. French mustard is a wet slurry made from the whole seed mashed with grape juice, white wine or vinegar which is then strained and sometimes blended with herbs. Sometimes the whole seeds are left intact to produce those appetising wholegrain mustards known, in France, as moutardes a l'ancienne.

If the English like yellow mustard and the French brown, in India the black mustard seed reigns supreme. Here the seeds - the tiniest of all mustard varieties - are thrown into a pan of smoking oil where they immediately start popping. Sprinkled over a dal of cooked lentils, they contribute a slightly bitter, nutty taste and a crunchy texture.

We may choose to be furiously loyal to English mustard but French mustard, because of its complexity, lends itself better to culinary use. Though the pleasingly bitter note of each means that either can be used to lift an otherwise bland macaroni or cauliflower cheese, the combination of sweet and sour, salty and bitter notes in French mustard makes it more versatile than our own.

The other day I was the guest of Maille, the famous mustard producers from Dijon, while they put Four Seasons chef Eric DeBlonde through his paces. Without pausing for breath, he prepared a dozen little dishes, which he described as tapas, successfully combining their range of French mustards with everything from langoustines and foie gras to asparagus and mushrooms, throwing in a Cheddar cheese souffle with wholegrain mustard, a mustard sorbet and, weirdly, a dessert of sweet fruits with green peppercorn mustard, on the way.

Before dismissing the latter as completely barmy, you might recall that Italy's contribution to mustard cookery is the incomparable Mostarda di Cremona, a pickle of crystallised fruits in mustard-flavoured sugar syrup, which is usually served with cold meats.

No reflection on the skills of M DeBlonde, but my favourite mustard recipes are those which have stood the test of time. One is a lamb fillet rolled in masses of wholegrain mustard, coated in breadcrumbs and roasted in a hot oven for 25 minutes. Another is free-range chicken, split (spatchcocked) and grilled, then finished with a generous coat of Dijon mustard, added a couple minutes before the end of the cooking time to produce a crisp, tasty skin. The heat moderates the ferocity of the mustard in both instances.

Lapin moutarde

This is a recipe by Margaret Costa, the much-loved English cook who died last month. Happily, her book, 'The Four Seasons Cookbook', has been republished in paperback this month (Grub Street £12.99)

Serves 4-6

1 rabbit4 tablespoons Dijon mustard1 rounded tablespoon of seasoned flour40g/112 oz butter50g /2oz salt pork, diced1 onion, finely chopped1 clove garlic, crushed275ml/10fl oz single creamchopped parsley or chervil and croutons of fried bread for garnishsalt

This recipe should be started the day before you want to eat it.

Cut the rabbit into neat joints and soak them for an hour or two in cold, salted water. Drain and dry well. Smear the rabbit pieces evenly and fairly thickly all over with the mustard - tarragon-flavoured mustard is particularly delicious in sauces for veal, chicken and rabbit - and leave in a cool place.

The next day, dip the joints in seasoned flour. Melt the butter in a heatproof casserole and brown the meat very lightly all over. Remove from the casserole and set to one side. Cook the diced salt pork for a few minutes, then add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft but not coloured. Return the rabbit to the casserole, cover closely and cook over a low heat for half an hour. Add the cream, cover and cook over a very low heat, or in a very moderate oven, 325F/160C/Gas 3, for about 45 minutes longer, stirring once or twice. Sprinkle with a little finely chopped chervil or parsley before serving, and garnish with triangles of bread, fried golden brown in butter.

A guide to mustards

ENGLISH Made with half brown, half white seed, and milled to a powder (an English invention). Traditionally made with cold water, which releases the pungent essence in the natural oil (hot liquid kills the enzyme which effects this change), it takes 10 to 15 minutes to achieve its full potency. Our modern, impatient society tends to settle for ready- made mustard, though. Colman's is the old favourite, but there are other excellent English mustards such as Gordon's.

DIJON Smooth mustard, with the husks sieved out, flavoured with grape juice or white wine. Made with brown seed only. This is the one for cooking with; it enhances everything it touches, and is best for salad dressings. Grey Poupon and Maille are the top brands.

AMERICAN Made with the milder white seed only and blended with turmeric to enhance its yellow colour. This is the mustard you squirt from plastic containers at hotdog stalls: French's is the big brand name.

BORDEAUX Similar to German mustard, made with the whole seed, husks and all, vinegar, and often tarragon. Essential accompaniment to the sliced sausage of the region.

MOUTARDE A L'ANCIENNE Wholegrain mustard such as Pommery moutarde de Meaux and Maille. The whole seeds are crushed with grape juice or white wine, producing a wonderfully keen, tangy flavour, and fabulous texture. Use generously on cold meats or mixed with breadcrumbs as a crust for grilled or roast lamb, chicken and fish.

GERMAN Made with brown seed and vinegar, it is slightly sweet-sour and is the perfect accompaniment for a wide range of wurst, the national sausages.

NOVELTY MUSTARDS There are always new mustards, with chillies, or horseradish, or herbs and spices, but the most enduring and successful are those blended with honey. Mustard with green peppercorns is particularly good for making sauces.

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