Mustard emer­gency? Never again!

Mustard is a global product. Following supply bottle­necks in 2022, manu­fac­turers are now increas­ingly trying to use local vari­eties again. We visited mustard producers in France and Germany and spoke to them about their new approaches.

For Fran­cophone mustard lovers, 2022 was a diffi­cult year. The shelves in French super­mar­kets, where the jars of Dijon mustard from Maille, Amora and other producers were normally to be found, usually next to the corni­chons and other spicy and sour special­i­ties, were bare. Queries were answered with just a regretful shrug of the shoul­ders. Prac­ti­cally all the producers had delivery prob­lems.

The reason for this was to be found on the other side of the world: Extreme heat and drought in the previous year had led to massive crop fail­ures in North America. However, most French producers had previ­ously sourced the seed for their mustard from Canada. Dijon mustard seed had not been used in Dijon mustard for many decades. Unlike many other French prod­ucts, Dijon mustard refers to a specific recipe and not a protected geograph­ical name. Never­the­less, most of the major producers are repre­sented in the region: Amora and Maille, which belong to Unilever, for example, or Européenne de Condi­ments (EdC), now owned by the German company Kühne.

Yellow mustard fields used to bloom in Burgundy in the summer. The farmers deliv­ered their harvest to local producers in Dijon or Beaune. From the 1960s onwards, however, they gave up growing mustard in favour of cash crops like wheat or maize.

In Barges in the Départe­ment de la Côte-d’Or, the last field is harvested.

Mustard cultivation in France

This is an under­stand­able deci­sion when you look at mustard plants in the field shortly before harvest. Thin and straggly, they look like the poorer siblings of rape­seed, which they are actu­ally related to, through family ties of the crucif­erous plants. The small pods contain oil-bearing seeds that are hardly any larger than pin heads. In Canada, mustard is grown on a large scale in mono­cul­tures using lots of fertiliser and pesti­cides, mainly in the province of Alberta. This has enabled the Cana­dians to produce prof­itably and become the world’s largest mustard exporters.

Other exporters include coun­tries like Ukraine, Russia and the USA. The largest producer, however, is Nepal, but there the small seeds are used locally. “Mustard is diffi­cult to grow, it is suscep­tible to infes­ta­tion by insects and the yield is low at only 1-2t/ha; wheat and maize can yield almost five times as much,” says Damien Beau­mont from Barges in the Départe­ment de la Côte-d’Or. Never­the­less, he is is a grower of mustard. His last field is being harvested and a huge cloud of dust trails behind the combine. It has been an extremely dry year, but a broad jet of mustard seeds is discharged into the trailer being towed by a tractor along­side the combine. The trailer is quickly full and is brought into the new shed that Damien has built, together with his three part­ners.

The small pods of the mustard plant…
contain the oil-containing grains.

Satis­fied, the farmer climbs onto the trailer and holds out a handful of grains to us. “Try it, it’s very spicy.” With his straw hat, shorts and flip-flops, Damien doesn’t look like a typical farmer. He and his part­ners have been growing mustard on a good part of their 770ha since 2003, and he is also vice pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion des Produc­teurs de Graines de Moutarde de Bour­gogne (APGMB). The Burgundy Asso­ci­a­tion of Mustard Seed Growers is expanding rapidly and creating a coun­tertrend, fuelled by the mustard emer­gency in Canada and as a result of Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine.

At eye level with the farmers

Last year, it consisted of 300 farmers growing mustard on a total of 4,000ha. In 2023, the number of producers doubled, and the hectares tripled. “Mustard is currently the crop with the highest profit margin,” explains Damien with a satis­fied smile. Before the drought in Canada, farmers from Burgundy were earning €800-€900/t (£683-£768/t); in 2022 it was €1,350 (£1,152/t) and in 2023 it was €2,000/t (£1,706/t) for conven­tion­ally grown mustard and €3,000/t (£2,560/t) for the organic variety produced by Damien and his part­ners. “But we are expecting prices to stabilise at €1,500/t (£1,280/t) for conven­tional produce,” says Damien.

The higher prices are being driven by supply and demand. But there is another, possibly more pioneering reason. The Asso­ci­a­tion Moutarde de Bour­gogne (AMB), to which almost all producers in the region belong, is focusing on part­ner­ships with the farmers as equals. In order to promote mustard growing in the region, it pays higher prices and guar­an­tees them purchase quan­ti­ties. Today, these producers process around one third of the mustard grown in the region. They are also working together to develop robust vari­eties which should flourish partic­u­larly well in the region and require less fertiliser and crop protec­tion chem­ical input.

Moutarderie Fallot is the only mustard manu­fac­turer that only uses brown mustard seeds from the region.

Marc Désar­ménien

The idea and initia­tive to return to regional mustard came from Marc Désar­ménien, the owner and director of the Moutaderie Marc Edmond Fallot in Beaune, which he has managed since 1994 as the third gener­a­tion. The route there leads past the picturesque old town of Beaune. The Fallot mustard mill, built in 1840, also has an impres­sive façade, with an addi­tional hall being added to the historic building a long time ago. In the 19th Century, there were 30 mustard mills in Beaune.

Regional cultivation

Today, Fallot is the only family-owned company of its kind in Burgundy. Its survival is prob­ably due to Marc’s idea of focusing on local mustard and estab­lishing a part­ner­ship between producers and farmers 10 years ago. Fallot is the only producer that processes just brown mustard seeds from the region. That’s also why the company was the only one that could keep on deliv­ering in 2022. Demand exploded due to lack of supply of the other vari­eties.

“Our produc­tion of 2,200t has increased by 10% in each of the past three years, and we could have sold a lot more, espe­cially in 2022,” says Héloïse Taccard, export manager at Fallot. In addi­tion to the growth in France, where half of the produc­tion is sold, Fallot was also able to expand exports to the USA, Japan and Germany, where Edmond Fallot mustard can be purchased at Frischep­aradies. It can also be found in the branches of Mediter­ranean gourmet retailer, Viani, and at Fromi, among others, thanks to the supply bottle­necks for the other mustard vari­eties.

A torrent of mustard seeds lands in the trailer.

The dark mustard seeds are ground.

Mustard master Julien Bornet stirs the large mustard kettle.

The bottled mustard from Moutarderie Fallot.

Although the mustard seeds from the region are more expen­sive than those from Canada, the shorter trans­port chain has less impact on the envi­ron­ment. The part­ner­ship with farmers promotes regional value creation. “And the flavour is much better,” says master mustard maker, Julien Bornet. Kitted out in his white coat and cap, he stands in the produc­tion hall stir­ring a large barrel full of mustard. The yellow colour of the mixture is just as intense as that of a freshly crushed, ripe mustard seed.

This is how special mustard is created

The odour in the hall brings tears to your eyes. That’s due to the allyl isoth­io­cyanate which forms during the enzy­matic conver­sion of the mustard oil. The mustard seeds soak in water for 24 hours, then steep in vinegar or white wine, to which salt and other spices are added. Then they are ground between grooved, 200-year-old granite grind­stones, the size of truck tyres. “We work very slowly at high pres­sure and without heat, which is how we get the unique flavour and intense colour of the mustard,” explains Julien.

Only later are a wide variety of ingre­di­ents added to produce the different vari­eties, from chillies, honey and rose­mary to beer or algae. Very popular, partic­u­larly on the French market, is the variety made with Burgundy white wine instead of vinegar. However, the main product is and remains the classic mustard.

Tradi­tional mustard from Bautzen

Bautzen is no different. The town in Saxony in the East of Germany also has a picturesque town centre. However, a mustard producer with a long history has been producing outside the city since 1976. Here, too, they are increas­ingly focusing on using regional mustard seeds, in what is actu­ally more of a potato-growing area. Today is the first day of delivery of the local harvest. Plant manager Michael Bischof holds a probing hand in the stream of brightly coloured grains pouring out of the trailer into the washing system. “The harvest comes from fields within a radius of 20km; the closest farm is just 1,500m away,” he says. Bautz’ner stores these yellow vari­eties in two silos and the brown vari­eties in a third silo.

When it comes to Bautz’ner mustard, local mustard seeds are increas­ingly used.

Before the Russian inva­sion, a large propor­tion of the processed seed came from Ukraine. That then became a problem. “But we were never unable to deliver,” says Michael. Bautz’ner had already started to expand its regional purchasing 10 years ago. Back then, 40% of the processed seed came from Germany; today it is 60%, 10-15% of which comes from the local Upper Lusatia region. The rest still comes from Ukraine, as well as from the Czech Republic and Slovakia and, in excep­tional cases, from Canada.

Bautz’ner also has the right taste and colour. However, instead of using tradi­tional mill­stones, it works with corundum mills, in which two discs grind on top of each other under high pres­sure. “That’s much more effi­cient,” explains Michael. The old granite mill­stones now stand as an eye-catching front piece  to the factory entrance. It is the high pres­sure and speed­i­ness that generate heat in the corundum mills. “We cool the mustard down from 50⁰C to 23⁰C as quickly as possible to prevent the aromas from evap­o­rating.”

We grind our mustard with corundum mills. This is much more effi­cient than the old granite grinding stones.

Michael Bischof

As the market leader for medium-hot mustard in Germany, Bautz’ner produces 17,000t per year – a completely different quan­tity to that produced at Moutaderie Edmond Fallot. In the days of the German Demo­c­ratic Republic, this mustard was indis­pens­able in the kitchen. But that all changed after German reuni­fi­ca­tion. Never­the­less, the company from Saxony was able to estab­lish itself very success­fully in the unified German market. In 1991, it was still producing just 3,000t. Then, in 1992, the family owned Develey Group took over, working with a sustain­able concept. The works council and the company manage­ment at the time had written a joint letter to the Deutsche Treu­hand Gesellschaft in favour of this.

From 70 employees in 1990, only 38 were left five years later. But then the company was able to grow again, and today has 56 employees. An impor­tant part of the concept was and still is the regional context. “We pay atten­tion to this in all our deci­sions,” says Michael. This goes right down to the small plastic pots in which Bautz’ner is predom­i­nantly sold. Some 36m of them are filled per year, all of which come from a local manu­fac­turer. At the time, farmers in Upper Lusatia didn’t really want to grow mustard anymore.

Mustard seeds from the region are deliv­ered.

36 million cups of Bautz’ner mustard are filled every year.

“Mustard is a bit of a softy; it reacts very sensi­tively to too much rain or dryness,” explains Ronny Döcke, chairman of the Regional Growers’ Co-oper­a­tive. “On the other hand, the plant is very good for our soil.” This year, 16 members of this co-oper­a­tive have grown a total of 240ha of mustard, with a total produc­tion of 390t. The part­ner­ship-based contract farming helps here, too. “We nego­tiate prices and quan­ti­ties every year so that we can look each other in the eye again next year,” continues Ronny. We also work together to improve vari­eties and growing tech­niques or organise trans­parent discus­sions about the quality of the seeds and harvest at field days.” Michael notes: “That’s not possible with a supplier from over­seas.”. This is demon­strating how a new secure supply chain can serve mustard lovers.