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The Secret Health of Mustard

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Is there an organism out there who hasn't yet heard of the brilliant health properties of the Acai? You've surely caught the buzz about blue-green algae, or the miraculous life-preserving whortleberry? The claims are pretty breathtaking, and usually elicit a great big "meh" out of most culinary hedonists. ChefShoppers tend to eat for the joy of it, and we like our food to tell a story, seduce our palates, make a boring Tuesday afternoon feel like a Mediterranean cruise - and help us live forever, too. But, just in case you were wondering, we are talking about a superfood here. Reintroduce yourself to a culinary grande dame, one of nature's oldest delicacies, and easily the lip-smackingest of phytonutrients-mighty, the magnificent mustard.

What makes the mustard so mighty?

The mustard plant is a brassica, a genus that includes cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Remarkably, just a tablespoon of prepared mustard has nearly the same count of omega 3 fatty acids, selenium and tryptophan as a cup of broccoli. These phytonutrients help protect the body against certain kinds of cancers, specifically against gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers. Selenium in particular has been shown to reduce the severity of asthma and decrease certain symptoms associated with arthritis. Magnesium is helpful in lowering blood pressure, restoring sleep patterns and reducing the frequency of migraine attacks.

The History of Mustard

Mustard seeds are native to Europe and Asia, where the plant grows easily. As far back as the 5th century BC, and perhaps even earlier, crushed and moistened mustard seeds were used as a topical curative for chest inflammation, bruising, rashes and joint pain. It is likely that the method used for making an ointment or paste inspired its use as a spread. When mustard seeds are crushed and mixed with water, a chemical reaction between an enzyme and a sulfur compound occurs and the result is highly volatile and intensely spicy paste. The mixture gains intensity within several minutes and then sharply drops off. However, if an acid is added to the mixture after it matures, the deceleration is halted and the mixture retains its spice and heat. It is likely that an acid solution was first added to ground mustard seeds in order to prolong its healing properties, but it just so happened that the addition of vinegar or wine made it pretty tasty, too.

Before the cardiovascular theory of the body came into common use, Western physicians described the makeup of the body as four fluids, or humors, that kept the body in balance. Illnesses were caused by the body having too much or too little of a hot, cold, dry or moist humor. Foods were prescribed to correct the body's humor, and certain foods were paired with each other to neutralize their effects on the body. Therefore, a person might eat hot mustard seeds as a cure for the chills. More often, prepared mustard was paired with foods thought to be overly cold or overly moist. This, as luck would have it, would often mean roast beef or pork. Sounds like these meats and mustard were destined for each other, doesn't it?

And Then There Was Dijon

Mustard has always been an important commodity in Europe, whose appetite for spice has launched a thousand ships. Unlike other rare and costly spices, like cloves, cinnamon, ginger and allspice, mustard seed is a native spice that is easily cultivated. Legend has it that the inhabitance of the French town of Dijon was, once upon a time, fairly ignorant of the mustard that grew in abundance all around them. Dijon was just one stop of many along the Roman spice route, and the townsfolk developed a taste for rich, highly spiced dishes. When the trade route was abandoned, the Dijonnais "discovered" their mustard, and have been cooking with it ever since.

The town of Dijon was the location of the first commercial mustard business, way back in the 14th century. They were answering the demand of thousands of hungry folks who used mustard at just about every meal. Every home had a "mustard jar" that could be filled at a local shop, and mustard was purchased as often as one might buy a loaf of bread or a container of milk. Wealthy travelers would never leave home without their own private stores of mustard, and the Dukes of Burgundy would provision themselves with their native Dijon mustard before going into battle. The recipe for Dijon's mustard was highly prized, as it was the first to substitute a flavorful verjus (the liquid extracted from green grapes) for a rougher vinegar or wine.

The French passion for mustard reached its apex in the 19th century, when advances in industrial production expanded the reach and scope of Dijon's mustard factories. Recent changes in the global economy have changed Dijon's fortunes, however. Rapeseed has replaced most of the mustard plants in the region, and Canadian mustard seed became extremely cheap to import. Recently, the oldest extant mustard factory in Dijon announced that it was closing its doors. The end of the story is nowhere near, however. A plan to halt the closure is underway, and a group has started a page on Facebook to rally a good-natured mustard mob.

Other Random Mustard Factoids

* In Britain, mustard received another transformation when it was successfully dried and milled into a fine powder, which extended its shelf life and made it easy to transport. First achieved in the 16th century, the powdered mix was popularized in the 1800's when turmeric was added for color, and flour to improve its texture. Britons like their mustard hothothot, and often gets that way with the addition of horseradish.

* German mustard are similar to those made in France, and do not have nearly the same kind of heat that British mustard does.

* In the United States, we love our ballpark yellow mustard the best. French's mustard was introduced at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 by Robert Timothy French-An American. Our second favorite mustard is Grey Poupon, the French mustard created by Frenchmen Maurice Grey and August Poupon. Though it is now a subsidiary of Kraft, the Grey Poupon label was first produced in 1853, when Grey invented a steam-driven mustard mill.

Click to see our selection of mustard

(c) ChefShop.com, 2010
Keywords: Dijon, Mustard
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