Wild Mustard: Mustard Making
Anyone who has driven along our coastline in late winter or early spring has seen the vibrant yellow blooms of mustard, or Brassica nigra, blanketing the hills. On a cloudy day, it’s easy to believe you’re looking at a bright spot of sunlight breaking through the clouds, just enough to illuminate a nearby vista—until you realize it’s actually a patch of these annual beauties.
Alone, the flower is rather small, and the stalk is thin and fairly ragged looking. But en masse, this flowering weed is a showstopper.
The humble mustard plant has commanded the attention of people throughout history. One of the oldest recorded plants, mustard is mentioned in the Bible and has been found in the tombs of mummies of ancient Egypt. It was used medicinally and therapeutically before its culinary attributes were recognized. The ancient Romans are said to have been the first to use mustard as food—grinding mustard seed with wine to produce the paste that we know today as simply “mustard.”
Though a world traveler, mustard has deep roots in our own backyard as well. Legend has it that the common mustard that we see throughout the California coast today was originally brought over on the ships from Spain with Father Junipero Serra. As he made his way up the coast, erecting one mission after another, he also left behind him a trail of mustard seeds so that he would be able to follow the golden path back to Spain once they bloomed the following spring. Kind of the Johnny Appleseed of the mustard world—except that instead of fruiting trees he was cultivating a non-native, spreading weed throughout the coast.
Despite its hasty spread throughout the local ecosystems, Brassica nigra has its perks—after all, as A. A. Milne said, “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.” And for the mustard weed, flowers—and even seeds—aren’t the only parts to be enjoyed. Edible leaves make for tasty sautés or a spicy addition to salads as well. Though when it comes to the condiment that has taken center stage at many a summer picnic, the seed is where the true gold lies.
There are actually many different species of wild mustard, three of which are especially important in the culinary world:
Black Mustard, Brassica nigra, is one of the more common species that we see in coastal California. The seeds are smaller and harder to remove from the dried hull than other species of culinary mustard; for this reason, you rarely see black mustard seed available on the shelves of the grocery store, or if you do you will definitely be paying for the price of the hand-harvesting it requires. Black mustard packs the most punch as far as flavor goes, and can produce a very spicy condiment when all is said and done. For the forager at heart, this is the seed to seek!
Brown Mustard, Brassica juncea, is one that you are most likely familiar with as many classic European-style mustards, such as Dijon, are made from this species. A step down from Black Mustard on the heat spectrum, this one still has a well-rounded flavor and is more widely available in markets.
White (or Yellow) Mustard):
White (or Yellow) Mustard, Sinapsis alba, is the most mild culinary mustard seed of all and also the easiest to locate in the markets. Yellow ballpark-style mustards originate from the humble Sinapsis alba seed.
Mustard, as a condiment, is fairly easy to make at home—and the flavor combinations are truly endless if you just follow the basics. Mustard seeds are ground with a liquid, add a bit of salt, mix into a paste … and voila! You have mustard! But there is no need to stop there; try adding nuts, spices, dried fruits or preserves. For the liquid you can use water (which typically produces a mustard with a very sharp flavor), wine, beer, hard cider, vinegar or juice. It’s a fun mix-and-match of combinations.
A great tip to keep in mind is to soak your seeds in the liquid for 24 hours—this softens the seeds and makes grinding them into a smoother paste a lot easier. Fresh mustards will last in the fridge for a couple weeks.
I encourage you to play with some combinations and find your own mustard specialty! Or, to follow a recipe take a look at the one we have here for Roman Mustard.
You can also find more variations at edibleSLO.com.