Surgical masks and paracetamol for the fight against Covid-19. Microchips from Asia for European car manufacturers. Sunflower oil from Ukraine for restaurants and households. They have all been scarce at times since the start of the pandemic. But now – for French gourmets – things are getting serious: the country has run out of mustard.
‘I eat a lot of mustard,’ French musician Didier Marouani told me with thinly veiled panic, ‘but there is no mustard in Paris. I’ve been to 25 stores and we haven’t found anything – well, there’s some mustard, but it’s not the good stuff.
A visit to my nearest Monoprix supermarket confirms the seriousness of the crisis. No mustard at all. And while the local corner shop has two varieties on offer, one is bright yellow Colman’s mustard imported from England and the other is a “sweet and sour” concoction mixed with honey.
There is no trace of the smooth Dijon mustard so prized by the French – Amora and Maille are popular brands and, like Colman’s, both are owned by Unilever. This is the seasoning we used to make our money with as teenagers spreading it on endless slices of baguette as we hitchhiked through France in the 1970s.
It’s the same story as far away as the Mediterranean. As I write this, I just got a WhatsApp message from a concerned colleague: “Guys. Corsica also has no more mustard. It’s the talk of the town.”
The mustard makers of Burgundy say they have been hit by a threefold catastrophe that has affected the supply of seeds from Brassica junceathe so-called “brown mustard” variety used for the Dijon product.
First, there was bad weather in Burgundy itself and in Canada related to climate change, most notably a North American heat wave last year that cut critical Canadian mustard seed exports in half. Then there was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had previously been a fallback source. And finally, importers faced the global Covid-related shipping and transportation problems.
“We didn’t think we would have such a shortage,” says Luc Vandermaesen, managing director of grower and exporter Reine de Dijon, who is also head of the Burgundy Mustard Association.
Wholesale prices for the seeds were double or triple the normal level for some shipments, and retail prices have risen nearly 10 percent in the past year. Vandermaesen says the financial impact for consumers is minimal as the average person in France spends just €4.80 a year on mustard, but if the shortage persists, it could deprive the French of an essential cooking ingredient.
Bertrand Chauveau, chef of the gourmet restaurant Garance in the smart 7th arrondissement of Paris, explains to me – a culinary ignorance – that Dijon mustard is used not only for salad vinaigrettes, but also for flavoring remoulade, the spicy mayonnaise that accompanies cold lobsters, crabs and king prawns. “It’s fundamental to French cuisine,” he says. “That makes the mayonnaise yellow.” And I always assumed it was the egg yolks.
Chauveau and other chefs have recently had trouble supplying everything from aluminum foil to products containing sunflower oil, but he hasn’t missed mustard for his kitchen so far because he uses high-quality, artisan brands made from France-grown. seeds.
Ordinary shoppers, meanwhile, have learned all about the “heat dome” that devastated Canada’s crops and discovered that “Dijon mustard” doesn’t mean the seed itself has to come from Burgundy, because it doesn’t appellation d’origine contrôlée.
Marouani, meanwhile, has found a potential savior in Ukraine, where a musical protege of his once performed at a concert in Kherson with Marouan’s band Space, which has a large following in Eastern Europe. “He is my musical son and he says he will get me mustard from Ukraine – and send it with DHL,” says Marouani.
In the longer term, Vandermaesen hopes that an agricultural research program will lead to higher yields and greater resistance to the frost and insects that devastated the recent Burgundian mustard crop. “We are confident that French production will increase in the coming years,” he says, “but we are going to have some difficult months ahead.”