MUSTARD (Brassica nigra and Brassica juncea – Cruciferae)

There are three varieties of mustard which produce seeds used as a condiment. The first two are very closely related: Brassica nigra or black mustard (probably native to the Middle East) and Brassica juncea or brown mustard (probably native to China and India). The seeds of these are the ones distilled for use in therapy. The third variety is Sinapis alba, also known as Brassica alba or white mustard (native to the Mediterranean), which is the seed grown for the seedling mustard of mustard and cress (usually now that of rape). All are members of the cabbage family and are characterized by cross-shaped flowers (thus the name Cruciferae); these are followed by smooth erect pods containing the seeds. Brassica nigra is the largest variety, reaching to 2.4 m (8 ft) in height. All three are grown throughout the world

Mustard seeds were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs along with other offerings such as coriander, parsley and lotus seeds; the plants and seeds were mentioned on stele and papyri dating from as early as the first dynasty. Sanskrit mentions date back to 3000BC, which suggests that mustard must be one of the oldest recorded spices. (Some sources claim that mustard was cultivated in the Stone and Iron Ages.) The Greeks and Romans, too, knew mustard: according to classical tradition, it was introduced to man by Aesculepius, the god of medicine, and Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and seeds. The Romans steeped the seeds in must – new wine – calling the result mustrum or mustum ardens (burning must), from which the name in English is thought to derive. They brought the seeds to Britain, and early emigrants introduced the plant to North America.

Both England and France were and are famed for mustard production.
Monks in St Germain des Pres were famous for growing the plants over 1000 years ago, and mustard making and eating has been recorded in Burgundy as early as 1336: the city of Dijon was granted exclusive rights to mustard manufacture in 1634. England had known mustard since Roman times, and the centre for production at the time of Shakespeare was Tewkesbury. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Durham became important, and a hundred years later, with the entry into the mustard business of one Jeremiah Colman, the British mustard industry became centred on Norwich and East Anglia.


Description: The seeds of mustard contain 30-35 per cent of oil. Mustard seeds have to be crushed and macerated in warm water to release the oil through fermentation, before the process of distillation can take place. This maceration is necessary because the so-called mustard oils, or isothiocyanates, are inactive in the live plant: only when the tissue is broken and wetted, do enzymes release the oils.

The essential oil is very fluid, with little colour, perhaps a yellow tinge. It has a very hot, strong smell which makes the eyes water (like horseradish). In daylight, the oil becomes a reddish-brown, and it leaves a fatty deposit coating the inside of its container.
The principal constituents: Allyl isothiocyanate (allylsenevol).
Dangers: The essential oil is not easy to obtain. It is very strong and many have reported that it can burn the skin if not used in the right proportion. The use of mustard oil should be avoided by those suffering from nervous or allergic conditions, as it can provoke even worse skin reactions.


In illness
Used externally, the essential oil can be used for neuralgia and all the aches and pains of rheumatism, sciatica and lumbago. If you are confident you won’t have a reaction, massage a little oil gently on the affected areas a few times a day and relief will be felt very quickly. (The theory is that by irritating the skin, mustard oil draws blood to the surface, thereby actually relieving inflammation in deeper tissue.) You could do the same with the fresh mustard seeds crushed into a paste and applied on a poultice (see page 24). The poultice can also be used on the torso to help chest infections such as coughs and colds, and pulmonary problems. The lazy way is to use mustard powder.

Try to avoid letting any mustard oils near the eyes, as this can be very painful. If it happens, wash the eye out with cold water, and follow with a chamomile or rose compress.
Mustard foot baths have been traditional for centuries in both Britain and France, and a paste of mustard seeds and other ingredients is reputedly sold as winter foot warmers in the States to skiers and hikers. (See also bronchitis, pneumonia and respiratory system problems.)

In cookery
It is the seeds which are used culinarily although the leaves are edible: the greens of the Deep South of America have been developed from an African variety of mustard. Most seeds are ground and powdered for the various types of mustard, those which are darker having retained the seed coats. Mustard may be a traditional condiment with meat because it disguises possible spoilage; the seeds are preservative, though, thus their inclusion in pickles. Mustard seeds and mustard oil are used a great deal in Indian cooking.

To make up dry English mustard, mix with cold water (hot would inactivate the enzymes), then leave for 10 minutes or so for the enzymes to release the pungency of the oils. If adding mustard to food while it is cooking, add it late and cook very gently.

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