Here’s something you probably don’t know: Canada’s produces ninety percent of the world’s mustard seed. Ninety. Percent. You know that bottle of Dijon you picked up in France last year? Before the piquant seeds were ground into paste, they grew under the hot prairie sun. The Romans are credited with inventing the sauce, skimming the must off unfermented grapes (also used in Balsamic vinegar) and adding the seeds for spiciness. “Burning must” in Latin: mustem ardens, hence, mustard. As for the nuclear yellow glop Americans slather all over hot-dogs at Yankee Stadium? Blame Canada. Along with lentils and chickpeas, Saskatchewan produces the vast majority of this mouth-watering seed. Beyond growing it, the province also studies it, prepares it, cooks with it, and relishes each year at Regina’s Great Saskatchewan Mustard Festival. Likewise, the Great Canadian Bucket List relishes the opportunity to celebrate a condiment that, despite its mustard hues, is distinctly red and white.
Oh mighty mustard! Tomato sauce is sugary and mayonnaise milky, but mustard sends a quiver down the culinary spine. What is a roast beef sandwich without mustard? A hot dog? A ham? Mustard seeds have been an integral spice in global cuisines for millennia, from the curries of Asia to the condiments of Europe. Buddha used it to illustrate the universality of suffering. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, from when the mite of a seed can grow tall and proud. There are three distinct types of seed: black, oriental, and the most popular, yellow (usually brightened with the heavy use of turmeric). Our journey begins at Ackerman Acres outside of Moose Jaw. Here we meet a cheerful mustard-grower named Patrick Ackerman on his six thousand acres. Sweeping up a handful of seeds and popping them in my mouth, the seed delivers an instant wasabi rush to the head. Patrick explains how seeds are dispersed and harvested with enormous machines and combines. Cleansed and sold to international markets by the pound, it’s a hardy crop suited for cold climates and wet soils. I ask Patrick why the French don’t grow their own seeds?
“Oh they tried,” he explains, “but they couldn’t get the quality of our seeds, our taste, our oiliness.” Mustard is grown in countries like Russia, China and the USA, but Canadian seeds are prized above all. Perhaps the secret ingredient lies within the Prairies.
Chef Jssel Blackmore at Sprouts Catering in Regina has a few secret ingredients of her own. Trained in Vancouver, she returned to her hometown to start the business with her sister Hayley. Jssel has won the coveted Mustard Jersey (think the Tour de France, for mustard freaks) at the Great Saskatchewan Mustard Festival, where chefs compete with recipes and homemade sauces. There’s a gleam of pride in her eye when I sample her homemade Apple Butter Mustard, Cranberry Mustard and biting Hot Mustard. It’s a world apart from the nuclear-banana coloured paste squeezed on a hot dog. Jssel roasts her own seeds, combines them with vinegar and spices, and bottles them herself. Unlike the popular Gravelbourg mustards produced out of Saskatchewan, they are only sold in her store. For now.
Chef Malcolm Craig is the enfant terrible in Regina’s local mustard scene. Known for creative dishes, he’s invited me over to taste his mustard-infused dishes, paired with a craft beer, of course. Originally from Southampton, Malcolm arrived with his future Canadian wife a dozen years ago.
“It was December. When I got off the plane, I basically froze to the tarmac,” he laughs. “Well she warned me it would be cold.”
He explains how mustard seed is used to tenderize and flavour meats, how oriental seeds produce spicier mustard, as the name might suggest. Then he orders a round of deep fried panko-crusted avocado to dip in Gravelbourg’s cranberry mustard. It’s a combination of flavours and textures that tattoos itself in my culinary memory. Hot baked pretzels follow for dips in Malcolm’s homemade mustard pilsner sauce, capped with a juicy mustard-coffee rubbed trout. We chase it with Sriracha beer from Oregon’s Rogue Brewery, because chilli is feeling left out. In Saskatoon’s Ayden Kitchen and Bar, the mixologist experiments with a mustard cocktail. Although he’s a little nervous of the results, he nails it. Saskatchewan’s success with mustard however, is no accident.
“Please, no video cameras,” asks Dr Bifang Cheng at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada Research Centre in Saskatoon. I don’t know if this is because she’s shy, or doesn’t want me to accidentally reveal trade secrets. The largest facility of its kind dedicated to mustard seeds, nobody knows the genetics and science of mustard seeds more than Dr Cheng. For Canada to keep its export quality, the seeds need to maintain and improve their oil content, proteins, and taste. Cross pollination creates pods and seeds that are hardier, more resistant to bugs, more plentiful in the field. I feel like I’ve stepped into a biology textbook, the kind of largely used as pillows during class in high school. While I understand little of the science, there’s no doubt that very smart, dedicated people ensure Canadian mustard continues to dominate.
Prefer mayonnaise? Without mustard seed, your mayonnaise is as bland as damp cotton wool. Without mustard seed, you can kiss your coleslaw goodbye, and remove the tickles from your pickles. Along with growers, chefs, scientists and foodies, The Great Saskatchewan Mustard Festival sows the seeds for mustard appreciation on The Great Canadian Bucket List. Make some space maple syrup. It’s time we give Canada’s contribution to global cooking its due in the mustard-yellow spotlight.