Cutting the Mustard

And now for something completely different: a guest blog. It’s by Mrs. Pryor, aka Maisie Taylor, who is not writing about her favourite topics of ancient wood-working, gardens or our new puppy Baldwin (and there’ll be more about him in another post, shortly). Anyone who has stayed with us on the farm will know that Maisie is also an excellent cook with very strong views about the quality of ingredients. I think that comes across quite forcibly in what follows. And just for the benefit of our non-British readers, Waitrose is a food supermarket chain operated by the John Lewis Partnership. The J.L. Partnership is an enlightened company that is owned by the workforce, who are known as Partners. Both Maisie and I are great supporters of John Lewis’s who did, and still do, much to pioneer fair trading and support British farmers and farming. Anyhow, I hope that has whetted your appetites. Now read on – and I can promise: you won’t be disappointed!

Cutting the Mustard

By Maisie Taylor

For many years I have been of the opinion that Waitrose English Mustard is the best. To open a new jar and inhale sweet essence of mustardiness is to set taste buds aquiver and saliva glands squirting. It is actually wrong to say ‘is the best’ because a while ago it became ‘was the best’. The first inkling that something was wrong came when a new jar was opened and there was no quivering or squirting – just a mustardy smell. Initially there was no panic and my cold-ridden sinuses were blamed.

The perfect ham roll is made with a freshly baked, crusty white roll – the sort which are more or less bright orange on the outside, and which shatter when you take the bread knife to them. The butter must be salty, cold and slightly hard so that it doesn’t spread, so much as roll itself up in the soft white crumb. The ham should be purchased from a proper butcher and must have plenty of fat, which should be very white so that it contrasts yummily with the pink of the meat. It should be newly and thickly sliced and stuffed into the roll generously and not too neatly but only after English mustard has been enthusiastically spread over the bread and butter of both halves of the roll. The roll has to be squashed quite a bit before you can get it into your mouth. The crust should crackle and craze and the first mouthful should be a perfect balance of tough crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and enough mustard to almost, but only almost, make you sneeze. Waitrose English Mustard used to do the job every time.

As well as failing to make things quiver and squirt, the new jar tasted different: bland and slightly sweet. It was all very strange. The jar looked the same but could they have changed the recipe or was it that the taste buds had started deteriorating with the onset of old age? The level of mustard in the jar gradually went down but it didn’t taste any better and continued to be a disappointment.

A new jar! Perhaps this one would return to form… but no. The mustard was still bland, strangely sweet and not terribly English.

At this point something interesting happened.

Living in the country, I tend to keep a well-stocked larder and a full fridge. (‘But Darling, you live how far, 20 miles, from a Waitrose store? I’d heard there were pockets of deprivation in the countryside, but I hadn’t realised it was that bad!’). I have to admit I do occasionally uncover things at the back of the fridge which surprise me. Searching for a jar with something nice preserved in oil in it, I found myself travelling deeper and deeper into parts of the fridge that had seldom seen a human hand. Eventually, having abandoned the search and cramming everything back in, I discovered that I was left with not one, but two identical jars of Waitrose English Mustard.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

The two jars of Waitrose English Mustard. The earlier one (2015) is on the right.

Not being a great believer in ‘use by’ dates, my first reaction was to unscrew the lid of the nearest one and sniff:

Kerpow! Perzang! Splurt!

Taste buds quivered! Saliva glands squirted! Wow!

My second reaction was to unscrew the lid of the second jar and sniff:

Sigh! Unexciting, slightly bland, mustardy smell.

My third reaction was to look at the use by dates on the lids. Bland mustardy smell is Apr 2017 (Oops, two months out of date – no wonder it wasn’t quite the thing.) The date on the Kerpow! jar lid is quite hard to read, as it is rather faint… could it possibly say Nov 2015? How embarrassing. That is not good even for me.

But wait! I whip the lid off Nov 2015 (as it will now be known) and inhale deeply. Wow, fabulous! – this should be illegal.

There must be a reason for the difference. The labels seem to be identical including the bar code but detailed analysis begins to reveal differences. Nov 2015 is described as ‘A traditional English mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’ Apr 2017 is described as ‘A [?] English Mustard providing the classic accompaniment to hot or cold meat.’

The nutrition table is very different on the two jars. April 2017 has more calories, less fat and nearly twice as much carbohydrate. Really? That seems a big difference. Sugars are even more startling. Per 100g, Nov 2015 has 8.9g carbohydrates of which 2.9g are sugars. This compares with 15.5g in Apr 2017 of which 13.3g are sugars. Presumably the rise in sugar needed to be balanced by the rise in salt – from 5.05g in November 2015 to 8.5g in April 2017.

And so to the ingredients:

Nov 2015 – Water, mustard flour (31%), salt, lemon juice from concentrate, mustard husk, ground turmeric.

Compare that with:

Apr 2017 – Water, mustard flour (22%), spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard bran (3%), turmeric, stabiliser xanthan.

So all is explained: 9% less mustard, added sugar and other stuff.

So what to have in my ham roll?

More rummaging, this time in the larder, produces a tin of Colman’s English Mustard Powder. It doesn’t seem to have a use by date – too faint to read? It can’t be that the tin dates from before ‘use by’ dates, because it has a plastic lid and not a tin one… Oops, sorry, I’ve found the best before date: 07/16. That’s clever. Almost half way between the two jars. The label on the tin has no list of ingredients and just says ‘mustard powder’ and suggests that the mustard should be made up ten minutes before use. Armed with an egg cup and a Mickey Mouse tea spoon I make up a quantity of mustard – just mustard powder (which I happen to know was grown in the Fens!) and cold water, as instructed. I leave it to stand while I assemble the roll, the butter and the ham. Then I press the crust, lift it slowly and bite. At last, the moment of truth…

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Freshly-made Coleman’s Mustard in an egg cup, waiting to be enjoyed with a fresh pork pie from the village butcher.

Chewy crust, soft bread, cold butter, sweet ham and – yes – is that a sneeze I feel coming on? Yes…? Yes…? No! Phew. Aah, but the taste:

Bliss! Perfection!

And now an afterthought. I’ve just returned from Waitrose in Peterborough, where I failed to find any Colman’s Mustard Powder. All they stocked was the new, bland, pre-made stuff in jars (although I’m pleased to say that they did have the indispensable mustard tubes, which are perfect for the picnic basket). But really: just prepared ‘condiment’ and no real mustard powder! All I can say is:

YOU’RE NOT CUTTING THE MUSTARD, WAITROSE: PLEASE DON’T LOSE THE PLOT!

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