Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Farm Bulletin: From Tewksbury to Gaston

Why buy mustard at the store when you can easily make your own, especially if it's as ridiculously flavorful as the seeds grown by contributor Anthony Boutard at Ayers Creek Farm?

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"He a good wit? Hang him, baboon. His wit's as thick as Tewksbury mustard."
Falstaff in Henry IV, Part II.

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Since the Middle Ages, the most esteemed source of mustard was Tewksbury. Located in western England at the confluence of the Avon and Severn Rivers, with soils and a mild, maritime-influenced climate similar to ours. In his great book on salads, Acetaria (1699), Evelyn commends Tewksbury mustard as essential for competent dressing of salad greens. Today, most mustard is grown in in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, even those marketed as Dijon on the label. Dijon refers imprecisely to a Frenchy sort of method of preparation rather than the origin of the mustard seed itself; seeds from Canada also wind up in the distinctive yellow squeeze bottles for adorning the ball park hot dog.

Ripening siliques of mustard. You can see where the other parts of the flower were attached at its base, the seed cavity just above that, and then the dark pollen tube extending up to the desiccated stigma. A wonderful, bristly package that perhaps only a botanist could appreciate?

The fruit of the mustard is a sort of pod called a silique. Unlike the pea and bean pod, the silique has an inner membrane called the replum. You may be familiar with the ornamental Lunaria or Honesty, where the replum looks like a silvery moon and shows up in dried flower arrangements. In the wild versions of the family, the silique explodes upon ripening, scattering the seeds into the fur or feathers of a passing creature. The small seeds of the western bittercress can be unpleasant when they fly into the eyes while you are working in the field. The explosive trait has been bred out of the domesticated members of the Brassicaceae. All this is worth noting because silique and replum are handy scrabble words. 

Mustard in flower. There are four sepals and four petals arranged in the form of a cross, so members of the family are sometimes called Crucifers, bearer of a cross, redolent with religious imagery. But Brassicaceae, derived from Pliny’s name for the cabbages, is now the accepted name of the family. Upon fertilization, the sepals, petals and stamens drop away, leaving the ovary which will develop into the silique.

Does it matter a whit that the mustard seed is grown at the headwaters of the Tualatin and Willamette Rivers, or for that matter at the confluence of the Avon and Severn? In Gaston and Tewksbury, the crop is sown in the late autumn and grows slowly through the winter, flowering in February and March, then maturing leisurely before the summer's heat. This growth cycle is very different from Alberta and Saskatchewan where the crop is sown in the spring and matures rapidly through the heat of the summer. You all can be the judge as to whether that substantial difference in growing conditions is reflected in the seeds’ culinary quality.  

Mustard drying in the field prior to harvest.

Simply grinding dry mustard seeds yields a very hot and harsh condiment. One afternoon, two Bavarian mustard makers from a convent were interviewed on the radio about their process. The sisters explained that after soaking the mustard seeds, they added a special mix of herbs and spices, refusing to divulge any further information that would compromise the secrets of their preparation. From our perspective as biologists, the proverbial cat was out of the bag. As with beans and grains, the process of soaking the seeds triggers the enzymatic breakdown of the stored starch components in the seed to simple sugars, yielding a sweeter preparation and softening its harsh character. Who cares about the secret herbs and spices; mustard is a noble spice without assistance, thank you.

Our preferred method of preparation is to rinse and then soak the seed in water for a few hours. We keep the seed moist for a day or so to start the germination process. We then place the seeds in a hot mix of rice wine vinegar, salt and a small dab of honey, and refrigerate when cool. Prepared in this manner, the seeds are good in salads, and added to various cooked dishes such as soups or stews at the last minute. You will notice that as the seeds soak, a thick mucilage develops on the outside of the seed, hence Falstaff's quip. This mucilage is an emulsifier, used for suspending oil in vinegar or water. We use the seeds as is, even on wieners.

After soaking the seeds, it is also possible to wet mill the mustard into a paste with some vinegar and salt, if that be your desire. Regardless, always reach for Authentic Gaston Mustard Seed for complete satisfaction.

Authentic Gaston Mustard Seed Condiment

Drain the water from the soaked mustard seeds and place in a small non-reactive bowl. In a small saucepan, heat enough rice vinegar to cover the seeds. A dab is about perfect for the honey, and big pinch for the salt. All a matter of to taste. Precision is not necessary.

Close-up photos of mustard by Anthony Boutard.


Andy said...

I really enjoyed that post, thanks!

Kathleen Bauer said...

Thanks for reading, Andy!