MENTION the phrase “French mustard” to the average Briton and they will think of the mild, dark brown kind that was popularised by the Norwich-based firm Colman's.
However to most French people this is a mystery - one French blogger described it as “that sweet English stuff they have the nerve to call ‘French Mustard’.”
In fact the nearest real French equivalent - called moutarde brune - or sometimes moutarde de Bordeaux - is not very common in France where the best-known mustard is Dijon, especially as sold by market leader Amora Maille.
British-style “French mustard” would also be classed as a “moutarde douce” - a term used for certain sweeter, milder mustards in France.
Dijon is a dark yellow, with a milder taste than English mustard, but still with more bite and a more classic mustard taste than the sweetish, savoury, “French mustard”.
In fact, Colman’s French Mustard is now unobtainable, since they stopped the line after 65 years, following an EU competition law ruling in 2001 after parent firm Unilever also acquired Amora Maille. It was told to sell the brand or stop making it.
Even so, “French Mustard” can still be found in Britain - for example, Waitrose do an own-label one.
Real French mustards should also not be confused with “French’s mustard” - a classic hot-dog style condiment that is the best-known brand in the USA. This, as its makers insisted during the Iraq war, has strictly nothing to do with France, but is a family name.
As for real French mustards, there is controversy at Amora Maille after it announced it was closing its headquarters and factory in Dijon - though it will retain a mustard shop there. Production will continue at its factory to the east of the city at Chévigny, which Unilever points out is still part of “Greater Dijon.” The company cited economic difficulties with running a town-centre site.
Mustard is made from the tiny seeds of one of several kinds of mustard plant - producing white, brown or black seeds.
The word comes from Latin mustum ardens (burning must) and the sauce was originally made by mixing the ground seeds with unfermented grape juice, called “must” (in French moût). These days vinegar is more commonly used.
The Greeks and Romans used the seeds for both medicinal and culinary purposes and it is mentioned in the Bible. It grows wild in Europe and is still produced in France, though most is imported from Canada.
Although mustard was made in Paris and in various wine-producing areas such as Bordeaux, the Burgundy area, where Dijon is situated, soon gained renown for it. The first large commercial mustard businesses started there in the 14th Century. In today's marketplace, dominated by major brands, there are just a handful of mustard firms in France.
According to Etablissements Fallot, who describe themselves as the last independent mustard-makers in Burgundy, mustard caught on in the Middle Ages among the working classes, who thought it had “digestive” properties and it became popular among the aristocracy in Renaissance times.
It was the addition of verjus - an acidic “green” juice of under-ripe Burgundy grapes, replacing the strong vinegar used previously, that is said to have given Dijon mustard its distinctive qualities, when mixed with (black, or sometimes brown) mustard seeds and stone-ground.
However Fallot say that, thanks to better vinegar-making techniques, these days what is still called “verjus” is usually a mix of wine vinegar, water and salt.
Sometimes white or red wine, grape juice (must), or a mix of these ingredients, is used.
Dijon mustard must be tamisé - that is specially filtered, to create a smooth, creamy texture.
Following a legal dispute in 1937 it was decided that moutarde de Dijon was a variety, not a geographical appellation, so much of it is now made outside the area - though it must conform to certain ingredients and methods.
A project is under way, backed by firms including Fallot, to have moutarde de Bourgogne, made with seeds from Burgundy and AOC Burgundy wine, recognised with a European IGP mark (indication géographique protégée - a similar but less restrictive label to AOC).
Fallot, whose mustards are used by some top chefs, including Paul Bocuse, have displays on mustard-making that can be visited (www.fallot.com)
The Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne in Dijon also has displays about the history of the trade, including old posters and old-fashioned stoneware mustard jars. It has organised an exhibition about Amora, at the Palais des Ducs de Dijon until the end of the month (www.musees-bourgogne.org).
Some of the other French mustards you might come across include:
■ A l'ancienne - with no tamisage (filtering) - leaving a grainy texture. Usually quite a mild taste and often with various spices.Popular with gourmets.
■ De Meaux (Seine-et-Marne) - mild, originally made by monks, often with coarsely-crushed, unfiltered grains. Has stoneware pots with red wax seals.
■ De Bordeaux - mix of white and black seeds, with sugar and various spices and dark colour - similar to “French mustard.” Not often used in cooking, it is good in sandwiches.
■ De Beaujolais - with red wine and a claret colour. It can add a mild, subtle mustard taste when used in cooking.
■ Violette - from the Brive area (Corrèze), made with red-grape must and with a purplish colour.
■ Mustards with special flavourings like Fallot’s pain d’epices (gingerbread) or (pink-coloured) blackcurrent-flavoured ones. Best not cooked, the latter goes well with red meat (like a beef carpaccio) or charcuterie, while the former is good with white meats. Other examples include au miel - with added honey - Provençale - with ingredients like tomato, garlic, oil, pepper and herbs, or Pimentée - a grainy mustard with added chilli pepper, good with cold meats.
■ Use mustard in vinaigrette (with oil and vinegar) or mayonnaise; in sauces; with strong-flavoured meats like rabbit, game, kidneys, charcuterie or with coquilles saint-jacques or vegetables like cabbage or sprouts.
■ Some delicately-flavoured mustards are not good used in hot dishes, but Dijon and à l'ancienne are among types good for cooking with.
■ Dijon is great with a steak.
■ Light and heat can damage mustard - keep it in the fridge.