Is there a more English meal than a roasted joint of glistening beef, served with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes and slathered in rich gravy? Just see Richard Leveridge's 1735 song “Roast beef of Old England” for proof (dodgy rhyming scheme aside):
When mighty Roast Beef Was the Englishman's food, It ennobled our brains And enriched our blood…
But where would roast beef be without mustard? The piquant spice is the quintessential condiment as far as the Great British Sunday Lunch is concerned.
The word mustard is derived from Old English mustarde, taken from the Latin mustum (referring to young wine or must) and ardens (meaning hot or burning). Originally, mustard seeds were ground into a paste with must to create what the Romans called a mustum ardens or burning must – hence, “mustard”.
One of the earliest references to mustard, however, is in the first known cookbook, produced in 1379 by Taillevent, French king Charles V’s chef. Little more than a decade later, the English king Richard II’s master cooks wrote their own recipe book “The Forme of Cury [cookery]” in which numerous mustard-based recipes are outlined.
Though it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that recipes for ‘devilling’ appeared. These dishes used a combination of mustard and mayonnaise to introduce a hellishly hot kick to foods. Devilled eggs, for example, are hardboiled eggs that have been sliced in half and the yolk mixed with mustard and mayonnaise before being spooned back into the white.
Today there are many different types of mustards available, from French to honey, wholegrain to Dijon, hot pepper to sweet. But the traditional English mustard is one of the hottest thanks to its unique blend of white and brown seeds, which have been finely ground. When mustard powder comes into contact with water, a chemical reaction occurs resulting in a searing, noseclearing heat that brings tears to the eyes and warmth to the belly.
Although English mustard has been made and eaten for centuries in the British Isles – since the Romans brought the crop to the country – it wasn’t until 1814 when Jeremiah Colman established his eponymous brand that this particular brand of the stuff came to the fore. Today, Norfolk, in East Anglia, home to Colman’s, remains the centre of mustard growing in the UK – there’s even a mustard museum in the city of Norwich.
English mustard was originally sold as a dry powder in the company’s famous yellow tins, and it wasn’t until 1830 that the first prepared English mustard was sold in the now familiar paste form. Today, the powdered form can be used in cooking to add flavour to gravy or to coat a joint of meat before cooking.
The white seeds give an initial kick of flavour, while the brown seeds offer a longer-lasting heat thanks to the oils they contain. Little wonder that, in the 1920s, the famous English crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers, who was working as a copywriter for the company at the time, came up with the slogan: "Come on Colman's, light my fire."
Livid yellow English mustard was not the first to appear in the UK, however. In the 1500s, another type of mustard was wildly popular. Produced in the Cotswolds town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, the mustard – made from ground mustard seeds mixed with horseradish and sold in a solid ball from which pieces could be trimmed and combined with vinegar to form a paste – was so well known that William Shakespeare name-checked the ingredient in Henry IV. His character Sir John Falstaff issues the insult: “His wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury Mustard.”
Today Britain’s traditional meat dishes love mustard. From roasts to famous Melton Mowbray pork pies, scotch eggs – crumb-covered, pork mince-wrapped hard-boiled eggs – to sausage rolls, they all come alive with a judicious dab of the yellow hot stuff.