The jar of mustard in your cabinet may seem mundane, but the little seeds it was made from have played a far-reaching role in world history. They were once used for culinary and medicinal purposes by the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, and Romans, and even make an appearance in the Old Testament. So, given just how commonplace mustard has been in so many cultures, how did Dijon, France become the mustard capital of the world?
The mustard craze first took root in France when the Romans expanded their empire to what was then known as Gaul, sometime around 58 to 51 B.C.E. Fortunately for today’s sandwich enthusiasts, they brought the mustard plant with them to Burgundy, a region conveniently located between Paris and Lyon. They founded settlements like Divio, which most likely meant sacred fountain, and which would later become the city of Dijon.
In medieval times, monks in Burgundy cultivated the mustard plant, planting it alongside grapes in the monasteries’ vineyards and making a tidy sum from selling their mustard paste. The condiment grew in popularity. Dijon’s preeminence in mustard production was helped along by a 1634 law that granted Dijon locals the exclusive right to make mustard.
For a while, mustard’s popularity faded as new and exciting spices from Asia became more widely available, but two developments in the 19th century saved mustard from becoming passé. In the middle of the 19th century, Dijon native Maurice Grey (of “Grey Poupon” fame) invented a machine that used steam power to crush mustard seeds, remove the husks, and grind the remains down to a powder. This new technology was infinitely preferable to the hand-operated grinding mills of the past.
The second innovation in Dijon mustards involved the recipe itself. Mustard in Dijon had traditionally been made with spicy black or brown mustard seeds and vinegar. In 1856, Jean Naigeon, a local moutardier (or mustard maker), expanded the Dijon mustard repertoire. He swapped out the traditional vinegar for verjus, a juice made from unripe grapes. Verjus is less acidic than vinegar, which is made from fermented fruit (like grapes), and it complements most wines nicely.
Whether you choose a Dijon mustard made with wine, vinegar, or verjus, your sandwich will thank you! And why not have a glass of wine with it as well?