The farming sage Thomas Tusser recommended in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” that in February, “Where banks be amended and newly up cast, sow mustard seed, after a shower be past.” That was a wise recommendation indeed, for mustard was one of the common seasonings for rich and for poor. The poor could grow it without cost even in wild places like newly turned field banks, and the rich just liked it as a sauce. (King Henry V was reputed to have said, “War without fire is like sausage without mustard.”) Recipes for mustard range from the simple to the very complex; I offer a complex one from Sir Kenelme Digbie, and will mention references to a few simple ones from earlier times.
The best way of making Mustard is this: Take of the best Mustard seed (which is black) for example a quart. Dry it gently in an oven and beat to subtle powder, and searce it. Then mingle well strong Wine-vinegar with it, so much that it be pretty liquid, for it will dry with keeping. Put to this a little Pepper beaten small (white is the best) at discretion, as about a good pugil, and put a good spoonful of Sugar to it (which is not to make it taste sweet, but rather quick, and to help the fermentation) lay a good Onion in the bottom, quartered if you will, and a Race of Ginger scraped and bruised; and stir it often with a Horse-radish root cleansed, which let always lie in the pot, till it have lost it’s vertue, then take a new one. This will keep long, and grow better for a while. It is not good till after a month, that it have fermented a while.
Some think it will be the quicker, if the seed be ground with fair water, in stead of vinegar, putting store of Onions in it.
My Lady Holmeby makes her quick fine Mustard thus: Choose true Mustard-seed; dry it in an oven, after the bread is out. Beat and searce it to a most subtle powder. Mingle Sherry-sack with it [(]stirring it a long time very well, so much as to have it of a fit consistency for Mustard. Then put a good quantity of fine Sugar to it, as five or six spoonfuls, or more, to a pint of Mustard. Stir and incorporate all well together. This will keep a good long time. Some do like to put to it a little (but a little) of very sharp Wine-vinegar.
TRANSLATION: (Again, not much translation is necessary. “Searce”, “pugil” and “quick” are fully defined in the glossary.)
REALIZATION: Digbie’s recipe makes a LOT of mustard. I recommend making at least two cups, because it keeps well, and it involves a lot of trouble for a smaller amount. Measure two cups of mustard flour, and stir in 1 cup of white wine vinegar. (Cider or malt vinegar is also a possibility, but stay away from red wine vinegar, The flavor is great, but the color leaves something to be desired.) Add about 1 to 1½ teaspoons ground white pepper and 1 tblsp. white sugar. Stir until very smooth, about 10 minutes. If it is as thick as modern prepared mustard, thin with additional vinegar. Add half an onion, cut into about four pieces, and several quarter-sized slices of peeled raw ginger. Add about 1 tsp. of grated horseradish. If you have a friend who grows horseradish, try Digbie’s trick of partially peeling a piece of root about 12 inches long and a finger-thickness; use it to stir the mustard, and leave it in the mustard. (Don’t peel the “handle” end, because horseradish can burn your skin.) Let sit for about two weeks, stirring about every other day. Correct the texture with more vinegar as it ages – it will thicken on standing. This keeps refrigerated forever, but will not become mellow if refrigerated. This will store covered on the counter just as well, and will become milder over time.
The second part of the recipe is made the same way as the other mustard, but is more in the nature of a sweet-hot mustard. I recommend bringing to a gentle boil before storing, as the Sherry is not quite so strong a preservative as vinegar, even combined with sugar.
For materials, Digbie is correct in that black mustard does make the best and sharpest mustard. It can be found in health food stores, but it will not be ground. Mustard flour from most stores is made from white, or occasionally brown mustards, which will be milder. However, don’t try grinding whole mustard in any grinder used for any other use. The residue is virtually indelible!
Most of the other medieval recipes for mustard operate on the same techniques. However, The Goodman of Paris suggests that, instead of drying and grinding the mustard, you soak whole mustard in vinegar for at least three days, then grind in a mortar and pestle until smooth. This will be a coarse and very sharp mustard.
Searce: verb, “to sift.” A cautionary note here is that for FINB sifters, of the kind used in the middle ages to bolt flour from bran, and here, mustard flour from mustard hull, the substance was vibrated through fabric like muslin, not through wire mesh like modern sifters.
Pugil: The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Ed. describes a pugil as “etymologically, a handful; but from the 17th century defined as ‘as much as can be taken up between the thumb and the next two (or sometimes three) fingers’; a little handful or big pinch.” It comes from the same Latin root as “pugilist” (a fist-fighter). Pick up a pugil of sand and look at the shape of your hand. That explains the derivation.
Quick: biting, alive, sharp, you might even say “lively”.