This quintessentially English condiment's roots are Roman, we cheer Colman's 200th year

On 30 April 1814, a flour miller called Jeremiah Colman placed an advertisement in the Norfolk Chronicle.

It ran:

“JEREMIAH COLMAN, Having taken the Stock & Trade lately carried on by Mr. EDWARD AMES, respectfully informs his Cus­tomers & the Public in general that he will continue the Manufacturing of MUSTARD; & he begs leave to assure those who may be pleased to favour him with their orders that they shall be supplied in such a manner as cannot fail to secure their approbation.”

Ames’ watermill, on the River Tas, four miles south of Norwich, would become the first home of the world’s best-known mustard, which this year celebrates its 200th anniversary.

Until his death in 1851, Colman and his adopted son, James, assisted by a one-armed ex-soldier, Lazarus Horne, as head mustard-maker, manufactured a distinctive yellow mus­tard powder essentially identical to today’s product. Colman used mustard seed grown locally (in 1814 Ames’s remaining stock of seed had cost him the significant sum of £51 2s) and personally inspected each year’s harvest be­fore agreeing to buy. Today, 20 mus­tard growers from the east of England supply the company, guaranteeing Colman’s status as English mustard.

It’s easy to take heritage food brands for granted. Certain products have been a feature of British kitchens for a surprisingly long time. Colman’s English Mustard falls into that category, alongside Frank Cooper’s Oxford Mar­ma­lade, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, Sarson’s Vinegar, Tiptree jam and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Yet, less than a decade ago, the distinctive yellow condiment in the distinctive yellow packaging almost lost the right to describe itself as English.

Mustard is England’s only commonly grown spice. Although small-scale mustard-growing continues in parts of Yorkshire and the Cotswolds, it is mainly concentrated in its traditional heartland, East Anglia. This year, Colman’s will be supplied by farmers in Cam­bridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, areas affected less adversely than many by the extreme weather conditions of the beginning of the year. For most of those growers, mustard forms part of a traditional fenland ­rotation, which also includes potatoes, sugar beet, onions, wheat and rape; mustard ­growing remains a feature of a type of mixed cropping that was once widespread in areas of England but is now much less so.

In 2014, grower Michael Sly sowed about 95 hectares of mustard on his 1,600-hectare fenland farm, east of Peterborough. Sly is the chair­man of English Mustard Growers (EMG), an initiative formed in the aftermath of a disastrous mustard harvest in 2007, which saw yields, which should ideally be a tonne an acre, fall to half that level. At that point, a third of the farmers who had formerly supplied mustard seed to Colman’s gave up.

Colman’s mustard is made of a combination of brown and white mustard seeds: the two seed types complement each other to create English mustard’s distinctive kick, which comes from an initial hit supplied by the white mustard seeds and a longer-lasting impact from the brown. This pungency de-rives from com­pounds called isothiocyanates, which are released during the digestive process. Their parent compounds, glucosinolates, may have cancer-fighting properties.

Formerly the white mustard seeds used by Colman’s were grown exclusively on English flatland farms, and the brown seeds partly sourced elsewhere, most of them imported from Canada. After 2007, Colman’s was faced with the prospect of importing far more ­foreign seeds, jeopardising its right to continue labelling its mustard “English”. With the support of Unilever, Colman’s’ parent company, Sly and 10 fellow growers set up EMG to avert this outcome. They aim to produce an annual harvest in the region of 1,500 tonnes of mustard seed to sell to Colman’s.

From the outset, EMG’s target was Colman’s bicentennial year. “Our intention was to secure the English crop, boost the yield and improve the seed in time for Colman’s bicent­enary in 2014,” says Sly. With nine new growers having joined EMG since its inception, including one this year, and yields up to 0.95 tonnes an acre in 2013, those aims are very close to being realised. Predictably, it has not been an easy process. Sly points to “dogged determination” throughout what he describes as a “hard but fruitful journey”, in which this cooperative of regional farmers has shared best practice and promoted efforts to restore the seed breeding stock.

Mustard growing is essentially a family business in 21st-century Britain. Although EMG’s most recent member is new to the crop, most of them have been growing mustard for decades. Sly’s family has been doing so since 1900. Several EMG farmers are fifth- or sixth-generation mustard growers; others began after the Second World War. These are farmers who have successfully survived challenges in the past. During the First World War, for example, the War Agricultural Committees, established to maximise wartime food production, issued spec­ific restrictions on the acreage of mustard grown in East Anglia.

Today the EMG farmers deliberately turn their backs on the temptation to switch to oilseed rape or wheat. It is the farming equivalent of a lifestyle choice. Third-generation mustard grower Greg Bliss describes growing the alternatives to mustard as “an easy life”. He prefers to maintain a traditional fenland mixture of crops, of which mustard is an essential part. His motive is more than nostalgia or sentiment. Including mustard in a rotation can benefit subsequent crops, particularly potatoes, as a bio­fumigant effect of mustard growing is believed to reduce soil-borne pests.

Brown and white mustard is mostly sown in spring and harvested towards the end of August, much as it was more than 600 years ago when mustard made its earliest significant appearance in any British cookbook. This was in The Forme of Cury, written by royal chefs in Richard II’s kitchens (“cury” in this sense referred not to the curry we eat today, but to cookery). Recently EMG members have experimented with growing brown mustard in winter, an innovation intended to counter the potential threat posed by a wet spring. Ideally, mustard prefers free-draining soil, which accounts for the siting of so much mustard growing in the Fens. Such a local flav­our does this particular farming retain that the seed grown by EMG farmers now is named after local parishes – Gedney (white mustard) and Sutton (brown mustard).

Continuing seed development by Spalding-based veg­etable seed specialist Elsoms, and the ­associated improvement in the quality of the resulting brown and white mustard flour, accounts for the likelihood that Colman’s mustard tastes better in 2014 than it did in 1814, Michael Sly suggests.

It is still among the simplest foodstuffs on the British table. Mustard powder consists of pure mustard flour, without additions or subtractions, while ready-mixed mustard is made from mustard flour, water, salt, spice and, in some instances, lemon juice. Its simplicity, connoisseurs agree, is central to its success and its continuing appeal. Those in the know recommend the use of mustard powder in cooking and ready-made mustard as a condiment. The latter is traditionally served as an accompaniment to roast beef, but in its native East Anglia, where arable farming is more widespread than beef-rearing, mustard was more often served with gamebirds, rabbit and hare and, in coastal regions, grilled herring.

Colman’s Mustard was not an innov­ation in 1814. In 1720, a Mrs Clement, then living in Durham, is credited with first grinding mustard seed to the smoothness later emulated by Colman’s; this smoothness remains a distinctive characteristic of the English variety. Mustard had been a feat­ure of English cooking since medieval times, in a variety of forms, and was listed among ingredients in influential French cookbooks even before The Forme of Cury.

The crop itself is thought to have been expor­ted by the Romans, who may have produced a sauce or paste very similar to today’s mustard. They probably mixed ground mustard seed with unfermented grape juice (known as “must”, from the Latin mustum); the effect would have been like modern Dijon mustard, in which wet, milled seed is mixed with unripe grape juice or diluted wine vin-egar (English mustard, by contrast, is made from dry, milled mustard flour: it is the wetness that tempers the mustard’s heat to create the typically milder taste of French mustard).

Both the Romans and Greeks are reported to have recognised mustard’s medicinal value. The presence of selenium and magnesium in the seeds gives the spice anti-inflam­matory properties. The ancient Greek physic­ian Hippocrates prescribed its use medicinally – with what degree of success, history doesn’t relate. More recently, it has been used to lessen the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. Its anti-inflammatory properties account for its use in old-fashioned mustard baths, which were used as a remedy for everything from muscle strain to fever, seizures and, more prosaically, the common cold. In these cases, powder made from freshly ground mustard seed was used; its heat was thought to have a warm­ing effect at the same time as drawing out toxins from the blood.

Jeremiah and James Colman’s innovation lay partly in their insistence on the quality of mustard seed supplied to them by East Anglian growers, as a means of guaranteeing the strength of flavour of their condiment, and the milling and sifting processes they employed to ensure the fine grind of their mustard powder. Their innovation also lay in the benignity of their working practice. Employees at Colman’s factory received hot meals and benefited from a lending library and the first industrial nurse in Britain; single female workers were provided with lodgings and working clothes. It was typical of the philanthropic aspect of some areas of 18th- and 19th-century manufacturing and, alongside the quality of its products, won for Colman’s its first royal warrant in 1866. Colman’s English Mustard retains that a badge of honour in its bicentennial year, and continues to supply the household of Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter.

Its continuing survival, however, is not simply the result of consumer loyalty on the part of British shoppers. It is due to hard work and determination on the part of a small group of English farmers, all within easy access of Colman’s factory south of Norwich. Their own heritage is inextricably tied up with that of the maker they supply. Michael Sly is delighted with the achievements of English Mustard Growers in the short span of its existence. He has every reason to be pleased.