A lot of the Dijon mustard out there isn’t from the French city of Dijon. Unlike, say, champagne, which must must come from the region of Champagne, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, which has to be made around the city of Parma, Dijon mustard can be made just about anywhere—France, California, Japan, you name it. The “Dijon” part of the name refers to the style of mustard that was developed over the last thousand years in the French town of Dijon. Even the mustard that does come from Dijon these days is mostly made by companies with executive boards in other countries, so finding Dijon mustard made by a locally-owned company is harder than you might think.
Dijon mustard was famous long before Grey Poupon.
Mustard has been grown in the Burgundy region around Dijon since the Romans brought it there some 2,000 years ago. The first official record of mustard made in Dijon proper is from 1336 when a local banquet featured a whole cask of it; it must have been quite a meal because they ate the whole thing. A few years later the king of France ordered 200 pounds of Dijon mustard for his kitchen in Paris despite having access to loads of mustards from anywhere. It’s had a ritzy air ever since, right up to modern day Grey Poupon ads.
What makes Dijon mustard different from other mustards? It starts with the type of mustard seed. There are three major kinds grown: white, brown, and black. They get hotter as they get darker. Most yellow American mustard is made with white seeds; Dijon mustard is made with a mix of more pungent brown and black seeds. Dijon mustard also includes more mustard seeds and less water than other mustards, making it thicker. Before the seeds are ground into powder, they’re fermented in vinegar overnight giving the mustard its characteristic tart flavor. The fermentation was traditionally done with verjuice, the very tart juice pressed from unripe grapes grown in local Burgundy vineyards; today it’s generally done in vinegar made to emulate the acidity of verjuice.
At the heydey of Dijon mustard making in the mid-nineteenth century, there were 39 independent mustard makers in Dijon. By 1911, thanks to a decline in the industry and the conglomeration of several of the companies, only eleven remained. The acquisitions continued; Grey-Poupon, nearly synonymous with Dijon, is owned by Kraft. Today, only one family-owned Dijon mustard house remains: Edmond Fallot.
Fallot has been making mustard in Dijon since 1840.
Today most of the original mustard making equipment is in a museum the Fallot company runs, but many of the techniques used to make the mustard still look like they did 170 years ago. Notably, they still grind their mustard seed with an old stone mill (just like Raye’s does in Maine). Using stone prevents overheating the mustard seed, which drives off its flavor and pungency. Most mustard makers have abandoned the slow, traditional stones for faster machines that crank out way more mustard (with way less flavor). Fallot also ferments their mustard in huge oak casks after it’s made, further developing the flavor before the mustard is jarred.
This is not mustard for the faint of heart.
The difference in flavor is clear as soon as you open a jar: even the aroma gives a hint of the nose-tingling spice. While other Dijon mustards may be a bit tart with a mild bit of spice that fades quickly, Fallot has a powerful, prickly heat goes right up into your sinuses like a punch in the nose. As the heat subsides, there’s a tangy, rich flavor that lasts and lasts.
Eat out around Dijon and you’re likely to find a small, ceramic pot of mustard on the table.
You could do that at home, too. Mustard lasts basically forever, even at room temperature, but the pungency keeps much better when it’s stored in the fridge. A strong mustard like Fallot is as good a match for the rich cuisine of the countryside of Eastern France as it is for the Eastern midwest: potatoes, sausages and other meats, sauerkraut, cheese, bread. Actually, that sounds like the makings for a sandwich—one that would be really good with a smear of Fallot mustard.