COLONEL MUSTARD, IN THE DINING ROOM, WITH THE LITTLE PORCELAIN POT AND THE TINY, TINY SPOON…
We’ve already taken a look at custard and its range of associated cups and jugs, time now to realign the taste buds from sweet to savoury and give mustard the same treatment.
First, as always, a little bit of background information; mustard, for the most part, is known as a condiment – although it does have other uses as we shall see. It’s made by grinding the seeds of a handful of specific plants, either just bruising them, cracking the kernels or powdering them rather more meaningfully, and then mixing the resulting material with other spices, different flavourings and – usually – a liquid in order to create a paste. It has been used to flavour food for some 4000 years in one form or another, although it is generally accepted that it was the Romans who first used it as a condiment per se rather than an ingredient in its own right with any regularity (it first appears in Latin cookbooks dating from around the 5th century). The preferred recipe involved mixing the traumatised seeds with unfermented wine (ie the juice of freshly-squeezed grapes) which was known as mustum; the resulting paste has a hot or “ardent” taste which lead to it being afforded the full name “mustum ardens” - itself then contracted to mustard. The product was to prove so enduring as to eventually – and unusually – provide the source for the popular name of the plant from which its constituent seeds were derived. As with the majority of things which were widely available in Roman society, it was readily exported across the Empire, which encompassed the vast majority of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and everywhere else under the jurisdiction of the caligae-shod cohorts. You also only need cast your mind back to primary school mustard and cress growing experiments to appreciate how easy it was to propagate the seeds, and hence, once introduced, the piquant paste quickly became a fixture in the new territories, and remained so long after the Romans had left.
However, if you bear in mind the date of the Roman cookbooks which set out the details of mustard’s preparation as having been pinned as fifth century, and if you went on from growing seeds at school to pay even limited attention to your history lessons, you may well realise that this timescale post-dates the time at which Roman influence in Britain had begun to wane - rapidly. From around 410AD our islands were cast adrift on the forbidding, near-stagnant backwaters of the Dark Ages. The victorious warbands who feasted in their great halls celebrating victories which fleetingly secured their tenure of small parts of the fractured mosaic of British desmenes had to devour their celebratory wild boar without the addition of any pungent pastes or savoury seasoning, and it was to be nearly an entire millennium before British palates were first excited by the peppery preparation.
No-one quite took mustard to their hearts as enthusiastically as the Gauls, and France maintains it strong connection with the condiment to this day. By the time that Britain had sorted itself out to the point where armies were being despatched over the channel to decimate the flower of French nobility on a regular basis, production at Dijon on a near industrial scale had been firmly established. It was only natural that those returning to these shores after the victories at Crecy, Poitiers and the rest were to bring with them – in addition to prisoners to be ransomed, war booty, divers pillaged goods, reluctant paramours and plunder – a taste for the mustard which had sustained their newly conquered foe. It took just a few short years (to 1390) before mustard makes its debut in English cookbooks, and within 150 years it had become so engrained in the fabric of the nation to have made an appearance in Shakespeare’s plays, to be listed as a permissible “treat” for otherwise frugal subscribers to monastic orders and to appear on lists of gifts presented to Tudor kings. 16th century writer Sir Philip Sidney also notes – with barely-concealed relish – that “mustarde paste is to maidens as ginger may embolden and envigour a garronne (horse)” – the mind boggles, and one can only hope that the manner in which mustard paste was dispensed to such ends was considerably less, errr, intimately directed than that of any equine ginger stimulant…
So, we now find ourselves in the midst of the 1500’s, and – not before time - the first appearance of mustard-specific containers (wake up at the back – relevant stuff, at last !) There are many examples of mid-to-late medieval earthenware pots which have been more recently catalogued as mustard pots, but – with no provenance to back this up – I tend to think that it is a case of retrospectively using this naming convention for anything that matches the present day understanding of what such a vessel should be like. Any little pots with handles, like small, crude teacups seem to be just as likely to have been used to store or serve any number of different substances other than mustard. Anything which was to be dispensed in small increments – anything spicy or sharp, or scarce or sought-after – would be equally as appropriate, and saying that these pots were exclusively for mustard seems to be little more than an albeit plausible shot in the dark. What we need is something far more definite, and – for that – we need look no further than Venice (or possibly Urbania, a little farther to the south). Obtained from one of these sources the British Museum holds a tin-glazed and painted earthenware medicinal storage jug, beautifully decorated with line drawings featuring tools of the apothecary’s trade, including a lidded box inscribed with the date 1556 - and bearing the legend “Mostarda”.
Clearly, this large vessel (it stands fifteen inches high !) is not intended for culinary use, and it confirms what is recorded by way of numerous contemporary sources – that mustard was an important medicinal ingredient. It’s listed as being a purgative, a dressing for wounds, used for “exulceration” and drawing blisters, as an appetite stimulant and digestive aid, a stimulant of other urges (as alluded to by Mr Sidney, above) and a means to dissuade infants who “will not forsake the breast and (are) very eager after it”; the simple mode of use in this last instance was to dust the nipples of the nursing mother with the powder before allowing the rapacious child to briefly indulge on the basis that a mouthful of mustard would ensure that they would have to be really, properly hungry before bawling in pursuit of another dose of maternal bounty.
However, it was in the role of foodstuff that mustard was to establish itself, with its long-time proponents, the French, being to the fore. It was the porcelain manufacturers of the early 18th century who were the first to produce small pots – constituent parts of full dining services – which were unequivocally intended for use with mustard. They are listed as such in bills of sale, warehouse inventories and piece-work payment ledgers on innumerable occasions from around 1685 onwards and, where copies of illustrated catalogues for various manufactories can be found, specific elements of cruet sets can be seen labelled as mustard pots. This enables us to state without fear or favour that examples dating from the same period as these records are exactly what they are purported to be – the sort of provenance which is completely lacking from the earlier pieces which we have already mentioned.
As can be seen from the items pictured alongside this article, mustard pots were made alongside every other article pertaining to a dinner service, and can therefore be found in the same diverse range of styles, designs and decorative applications as the plates, ewers, jugs and bowls with which you will already be familiar. Similarly, they were produced by all the usual suspects, with no one manufactory turning out mustard pots of any particularly celebrated renown, though bearing in mind that the Caughley works had a reputation for producing slightly idiosyncratic pieces, and from a purely personal perspective, I think that examples from this source are particularly engaging.
The diminutive scale of mustard pots also provided an ideal outlet for the expert silver-smith to demonstrate his skills in miniature, and there are some exquisite pieces which really do exhibit some marvellous craftsmanship, particularly pierced examples with fitted cobalt-blue glass inserts. As mustard tended to remain edible for an extended period of time when compared to other freshly-prepared foodstuffs which soured, curdled, congealed or mouldered far more quickly, there was a tendency to produce mustard pots with lids to prolong its shelf-life yet further, so any sortie into mustard pot collection affords the opportunity of that little extra frisson of excitement if you manage to secure an example which is still paired with its original lid; there may even be the ultimate thrill which is chancing upon the holy trinity of pot, lid and little matching spoon all intact and in close proximity. Although, on reflection, perhaps “ultimate thrill” might just be overstating things a little – I wonder if mustard powder possesses any calmative properties – do excuse me for a moment…
As ever – the relevant link to all our mustard-related finery: