The French Mustard Shortage
La pénurie de moutarde - the most important ingredient (after butter!) goes missing
I never fully grasped the importance of mustard in France until I was riding the bus home from grocery shopping and a woman of un certain age (about where I am now) leaned over and said to me, “Monsieur, that mustard is very good. And very strong!” while pointing to the jar of Amora mustard visible in my string bag. I got one of those when I moved to France, thinking it would make me look very French. But they hardly hold anything, and worse—and sometimes embarrassingly—people can see everything that you bought, especially things that you don’t want people to see that you bought. (And I’m not talking about mustard…)
On the internet, it’s never in one’s best interest to make absolute statements. But I’m going to do it anyway: There is nothing more French than Dijon mustard, and I dare anyone to prove me wrong. (Condition: You must be French or live in France, so I get a fair chance.) To make my point, I’d estimate that 100% of people in France have a jar of mustard in their refrigerator or pantry. Although with the current pénurie (shortage) of mustard, on that you might be able to prove me wrong.
Dijon mustard is at its best the moment you open the jar. That’s when it’s as sharp and as flavorful as it will be. I like it so hot that it slightly singes my sinuses and brings little tears to my eyes. But not everyone likes strong mustard and even iconic brands make a doux (mild) edition for those with more delicate palates. People in France aren’t famous for their love of highly spiced or hot food, but I guess there’s a market for it. And right now, most will take what they can get. If they can get it from all…
One misconception that people might have is that the French don’t hoard. During our big lockdown in March 2020, someone was buying all that flour, chocolate, and sugar (and most carbohydrates), that were wiped clean off the shelves. Luckily I was prepared with plenty of flour and sugar, but I had to rely on the kindness of my local bakery, who gave me a few kilos of chocolate to tide me over. (In exchange for homemade ice cream, for their kids.)
But we Americans seem to be the champs at making sure we’re well-stocked 24/7, and Romain was stunned when I brought home three bags of groceries just before the lockdown, which seemed more prudent than selfish. I didn’t think I was buying all that much, but his eyes widened considerably (as did my neighbor’s) when they saw me with not one…but three (!) cans of tuna, several tins of sardines, a few jars of beans, an extra bag or two of pasta, more cheeses than I normally buy, and a few bottles of sterilized milk, which I never buy. My neighbor told me that she just couldn’t shop for things a few days in advance. “C’est pas possible,'“ she confided, when I mentioned that she might want to grab a few extra things to have on hand, just in case.
In my defense, part of my job is to hoard. When I wrote my ice cream book, I was buying liters (quarts) of milk and cream, as much as I could carry at a time, and always surprised supermarket cashiers when I placed twelve cartons of eggs on their conveyor belt. Sugar and flour in France come in puny 1kg (2.2-pound) bags, so a bag will last me about a day. And I do make sure my cabinets are well-stocked with nuts and dried fruits, which I buy in bulk, rather than the teensy bags in the baking aisle at the supermarché. The one below is 50 grams, which is 1.8 ounces, about 1/3 of a cup. What kind of baking recipe uses only 1/3 of a cup of nuts?
I’ve been known to make 3 to 5 trips to the grocery store in a single day when I’m testing recipes…and not to buy nuts, which I buy at the Arabic market. If I had to buy them at the supermarché, I’d go nuts.
If you live with a Frenchman, you know how fast they can blaze through condiments. It’s a good thing I make a lot of jam because I’d go broke keeping up with mine. And while I have made mustard, most of the time, I buy it. But now we’re facing a shortage of mustard. French people don’t like being told what to do—except when they do—but telling someone to not put 1/3 of a jar of mustard on the side of their lunch plate doesn’t really work in my household.
At first, the shortage was attributed to the war in Ukraine, which seemed odd to me since most of the mustard seeds come from Canada. I don’t know if the mustard companies wanted the public to know that, so perhaps they were blaming the war. But 80% of the mustard seeds in France come from Canada, which had a bad crop last year, hence the pénurie.
Every country has their umami and without ever talking about it, mustard is the French umami. It’s a must to add a dash to vinaigrette, and a number of iconic French dishes rely on mustard. Interestingly, I’ve had people from the U.S. comment on my social media when I post a charcuterie pic, “Where is the mustard?!” Right now, with the pénurie, I could say, “That’s what we’d like to know!” But in Paris, mustard isn’t regularly served with ham or pâté, or charcuterie.
That’s something I learned very early in my French life, because I made the newbie mistake of asking for some mustard shortly after I moved to Paris at a wine bar, to go with the charcuterie plate we ordered. The owner looked at me, with a bit of indignation, rebuffing me with, “Our charcuterie is too good to put mustard on.” Lesson learned! And ditto with sandwiches; butter or mayonnaise is the spread of choice, although I have been known to add a swipe to a ham and cheese sandwich, which I’ll enjoy in the privacy of my home, so I don’t get caught.
One of my favorite brands of mustard is Edmond Fallot. Last year I was in Beaune and went to their factory shop, which was packed with tourists. I wanted to take the tour, but those were all booked well in advance. Their mustard is made with seeds grown in Burgundy, as is Martin-Pourait, whose mustard is a bit more challenging to find, even in normal times.
While I wasn’t willing to wait in the lengthy line last that I was at Fallot, on the same trip I did stop at a rather grim supermarket in a small town in Burgundy and saw they had Fallot mustard at €1,20 per jar, on sale. Romain made fun of me for buying three, yes…three jars (!)—but who’s laughing now? I haven’t seen any Fallot mustard in weeks.
For some strange reason, though, at my locals Marché U supermarket the other day, I did come across Moutarde de Meaux, a particularly perky mustard made with whole mustard seeds, that was - get this, on sale. Can you imagine if they put toilet paper on sale in the U.S. when people were panic buying and shelves were wiped clean during the start of the pandemic? It’s nuts, I tell you.
There were seven jars of Moutarde de Meaux innocently sitting on the shelf, which nary a panicky shopper in sight, so I bought two, which will last you-know-who about a week. I could have been American and bought them all, but left the other five for someone else who lives with someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the words “please eat it judiciously.”
But now that I’m French - I’m on team Amora. It’s good, and inexpensive, and to me, it is the quintessential taste of France. And while I don’t love using plastic, the squeeze bottle allows me to relax at the lunch and dinner table as I know the pot de moutarde isn’t bathing with ickies since people routinely dip the pieces of meat on their fork in the mustard pot, even at bistros and cafés, and people roll their eyes and think I’m hyper about germs when I speak up.
However my job as a restaurant cook was to make sure customers didn’t get sick, and I still take that responsibility seriously. However I can’t monitor every mustard pot in town nor the jar in my refrigerator. So to keep my blood pressure in check, I get the squeeze bottle.
A few weekends ago, we went to Angoulême to pick up the beautiful countertop for our kitchen, made by a local artisan.
It is a solid piece of oak and weighs a ton. It took four of us to heft it onto the roof of the car and it was a twelve-hour drive, round-trip, going there to get it and back.
A friend texted me when I returned, asking if I had a good vacation. I don’t know about you, but hefting a large, thick, solid piece of wood on top of a car and driving it across France, isn’t quite the summer vacation I had in mine. But I appreciated her thoughts and there were a few highlights to the trip.
We got to spend the night at the house of some friends, and we hit a local gardening store, since we don’t really have many of those in Paris. Now that we have a yard, we need all sorts of things that I never thought I’d be needing in Paris, like water hoses and anti-oiseaux netting to keep the birds away from our fig tree. I also bought a water sprinkler to run through when it gets hot, which I guess isn’t a thing adults do in France because Romain didn’t understand why I was insistent on buying one, even though I really wanted one of those inflatable pools, but…plastic.
The fun thing about the gardening stores in the French countryside is that they have all sorts of things, like canning jars and earthenware jugs to make vinegar in. As we headed to the checkout with my sprinkler, I noticed the store had a few shelves of foods, and right in front were five jars of Dijon mustard, right in plain sight.
I put two in my handbasket and suggested my friend, who lived nearby, buy one or two, and she waved me away, saying mustard was readily available down there. I did mention to the cashier that I was surprised to find mustard since there was a shortage, but only after I paid for them and put them in my bag 😉 She just said, “Bah oui?” (“Oh really?)
I prodded my friend one or two more times to get a jar, and for good measure, I put an extra one in my basket in case she changed her mind. She didn’t, so now we’re pretty good for mustard, at least for a while. And we’ve got a kitchen counter now, too, which is also something to be thankful for.
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Well, I finally got around to subcribing to your newsletter. With the smoke now socking in our beautiful Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon, I'm catching up on the full articles. Coming to Paris mid-August if you need some Dijon! I'll be in Le Marais. :) Or, I might be able to pay for our trip if I bring a bunch..
Congratulations, David. You are living the good life. The counter top is stunning. Looking forward to seeing it after installation. And an ample supply of mustard in your larder!!
Live in NYC, Fallot in short supply, Amora non-existant. My vinaigrette will not be the same.