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. All have been in short supply at times since the start of the pandemic. But now — for French food lovers — it’s getting serious: the country is running out of mustard.
“I eat lots of mustard,” French musician Didier Marouani told me with barely concealed panic, “but there’s no mustard in Paris. I’ve been to 25 shops, and we’ve found nothing — well, there is some mustard, but it’s not the good stuff.”
A visit to my nearest Monoprix supermarket confirms the gravity of the crisis. No mustard at all. And while the local corner store has two kinds on sale, 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 sign of the smooth Dijon mustard so prized by the French — Amora and Maille are popular brands and, like Colman’s, both belong to Unilever. This is the condiment with which we used to eke out our cash as teenagers by slathering it on endless slices of baguette as we hitchhiked around France in the 1970s.
It’s the same story as far afield as the Mediterranean. As I write this I have just received a WhatsApp message from a concerned colleague: “Guys. Corsica has run out of mustard too. It’s the talk of the town.”
The mustard makers of Burgundy say they have been hit by a triple catastrophe that has cut supplies of the seeds of Brassica juncea, the so-called “brown mustard” species used for the Dijon product.
First, there was bad weather in Burgundy itself and in Canada linked to climate change, particularly a North American heatwave last year that cut the crucial Canadian mustard seed exports by half. Then there was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had previously been a fallback source of supply. And last, importers faced the global Covid-related shipping and transport logjams.
“We didn’t think we would have such a shortage,” says Luc Vandermaesen, managing director of producer and exporter Reine de Dijon, who also heads 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 per cent in the past year. Vandermaesen says the financial impact for consumers is minimal given that the average person in France spends just €4.80 a year on mustard, but if the shortage persists it could deprive the French of a vital cooking ingredient.
Bertrand Chauveau, chef at the Garance gastronomic restaurant in the smart 7th arrondissement of Paris, explains to me — a culinary ignoramus — that Dijon mustard is used not just for salad vinaigrettes but also to flavour rémoulade, the spicy mayonnaise that comes with cold lobsters, crabs and prawns. “It’s fundamental to French cuisine,” he says. “It’s what makes the mayonnaise yellow.” And I had always assumed it was the egg yolks.
Chauveau and other chefs have recently faced problems with supplies of everything from aluminium foil to products containing sunflower oil, but he has not so far run short of mustard for his kitchen because he uses high-end, artisanal brands made from French-grown seeds.
Ordinary shoppers, meanwhile, have been learning all about the “heat dome” that ruined the Canadian crop and discovering that “Dijon mustard” does not mean the seed itself has to come from Burgundy because it is not an appellation d’origine contrôlée.
Marouani, meanwhile, has found a potential saviour in Ukraine, where a musical protégé of his once performed at a concert in Kherson with Marouani’s band Space, which has a big following in eastern Europe. “He’s my musical son and he says he’ll get me mustard from Ukraine — and send it by DHL,” says Marouani.
In the longer term, Vandermaesen hopes that an agricultural research programme will result in higher yields and greater resistance to the frost and insects that have ravaged recent Burgundy mustard crops. “We are very confident that French production will rise in the years ahead,” he says, “but we are going to have some difficult months.”
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