Dijon – The city and the mustard

When Julius Caesar was looking for places to conquer at 58 BC his options were somewhat limited; huge parts of the world as he knew it back then had already been conquered, most by non other than his childhood hero, Alexander the Great.

He came, he saw, he conquered.

So he went to North, to the land of the Gaul where he found fertile lands and many tribes; some friendly, most not. In the next eight years his legions conquered the lands that we know as France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland today. During the course of his campaigns he built many settlements, which became Europe’s main cities. One of them was Divio , the modern day Dijon.

William Gate, Place Darcy

Dijon is a lovely city to visit with a beautiful old town, gorgeous old buildings, a lively shopping district, museums, excellent restaurants and bars. It’s in the heart of Burgundy, so the quality of the wine is not too shabby either. And it has something quite unique, the gourmet mustard boutiques.

Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy

One of the things Romans brought with them to Gaul were the mustard seeds which took root in the fertile soils of the Burgundy region. Fast forward about eleven centuries and Dijon became the glorious home to the Dukes of Burgundy. It was a place of great wealth and power back then; one of the major centres of art, learning and science in Europe.

And thanks to the taste buds and ingenuity of the French , it also became the mustard capital of the world.

The Owl’s Trail – Le Parcours de la Chouette

So here’s a bit of spicy trivia :

First things first : Mustard is a plant. The paste you spread on your bread is the condiment. When you crush its seeds and mix them with something acidic, you end up with the condiment that is also called mustard, probably because the phrase ‘creamy paste of crushed mustard seeds’ is not so catchy.

Food historians believe mustard was the first condiment humans ever put on their food. It was first cultivated in China around 4000 BC, who liked spicy food even back then.

Ancient Egyptians loved mustard so much, they not only tossed the seeds on their food, they took them to their graves. In fact, mustard seeds were one of the seeds that were found in the catacombs of the pharaohs.

Hôtel de Vogüé

The ancient Greeks praised mustard paste as a miracle remedy capable of soothing scorpion stings and ancient Roman physicians used it to ease toothaches.

Cocktail time at Hotel Vertigo

The Romans were the first to grind the seeds into a spreadable paste and mix them with vinegar. The condiment soon found its way to the tables of princes and kings.

It was referred to by the true name of the plant until the Middle Ages, sénéve in French and later mustard from the Latin ‘mustum ardens’ which roughly translates as burnt seeds. Mmm, yummy. I wonder why they didn’t keep it ?

Cathédrale Saint-Bénigne de Dijon

Then came a French called Jean Naigeon, who in early 18th century experimented with verjuice, the acidic juice of unripe grapes, instead of the traditional vinegar and voila, the moutarde de Dijon was produced.

It took two other Frenchmen, Monseigneurs Grey and Poupon to industrialise the production by using a grinding mill and formed a multinational company. In United States, Grey Poupon became a household name because of its TV commercials, which linked the brand to Rolls Royce-driving aristocrats and popularised the phrase, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”

Old town – New Brands

Although insignificant as seeds, once planted they grow quickly to become tall trees. That is probably why Jesus used it as an allegory of the religious faith when he said ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. ‘

About 1300 years later, his then vicar on earth Pope John Paul XXII showed his preference to the condiment by creating a new Vatican post of the mustard-maker to the pope – grand moutardier du pape.

Architectural harmony or lack of space ?

Over the years, mustard has been used for appetite stimulation, sinus clearing, and frostbite prevention. It’s now touted as a weight loss supplement, asthma suppressant, hair growth stimulant, immunity booster, cholesterol regulator, and even as an effective method of warding off gastrointestinal cancer. In short it’s a super delicious super food. Sorry. I meant condiment.

Dijon of course is not the only place with a favourite local mustard. There are many varieties all over the world that appeal to many regional tastes and cuisines. However it is my favourite.

Which one’s your favourite ?

On our last visit we stopped the moutardier Edmund Fallot’s, where they combine many different ingredients. Apart from various seeds, herbs and three different types of wine, they also use ingredients like walnuts, tarragon, blackcurrant and gingerbread to appeal to any taste and menu selection.

Nowadays I’m experimenting with their different offerings but I know one thing for sure : A dash of the original Dijon mustard turns even a simple sandwich to something sublime.

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