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Mustard essential oil: What it is and how to use it!

Digestion and intestines

Mustard essential oil: What it is and how to use it!

The history of mustard, from gastronomic traditions to phytotherapy

This article will try to explain the origins of the essential oil of mustard and the main differences between traditional mustard-based sauces, often used in Northern Italy to accompany boiled meat and traditional festive dishes.

The mustard plant is native to Western Asia, but grows wild throughout most of Europe; it has small yellow flowers, which bloom in Spring, and fruits characterised by seeds that ripen towards the end of Summer. From the seeds of this plant, you get rich and grainy sauces, spicy and delicate, now become part of the culinary tradition in Italy.

The different varieties of mustard

The name “mustard” includes a variety of plants, all belonging to the cruciferous family. The four most common are the following:

  • White or yellow mustard (Brassica alba): with white or yellowish seeds, is more delicate and less pungent than black mustard.
  • Black mustard (Brassica nigra) was probably the first to be grown as a spice and is characterised by a flavour more intense and spicy than the white. Its essential oil is used in India and in Ayurvedic medicine for massages that ease rheumatic pain.
  • Brown or Chinese mustard (Brassica juncea): native to Asia, is widely used for nutritional purposes in the East where you also consume the leaves; it has a very spicy flavour, similar to that of black mustard.
  • Wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis): native to the Mediterranean basin and some areas of North America, is quite common in Italy as well. Even its seeds can be used for the preparation of sauces, while the leaves are edible when young.

In general, the variety most commonly used in cooking is the white one, because it has a pungent yet delicate flavour that does not dominate other flavours. However, the black variety is also very appreciated, especially in the Eastern culture.

Mustard essential oil and mostarda: let's shed some light

Often the terms mustard and mostarda are used interchangeably in the Italian and French culinary traditions, as they are synonyms in these countries: indeed, these words describe sauces made of mustard essential oil, extracted from the seeds of the omonymous plant. In the Italian gastronomic tradition, however, the two words are used to refer to two different preparations, with different stories and traditions. Let's see which ones.

Mostarda and Mustard

Mostarda is a typical northern Italian condiment made of candied fruit and a mustard-flavoured syrup, which traditionally accompany boiled meat and Christmas dishes. “Mustard” and “mostarda” in the Italian cuisine are therefore two separate dishes. The Romans already used a mustard-based condiment, which they called "mustum ardens" (burning must): grape must was combined with mustard seeds, which gave it its "burning" characteristic, i.e. a spicy taste.

In the centuries following the birth of this sauce, mustard was exported to France where it took the name of "moutarde" - a word that makes its first appearance in a document in 1288 - and from there to England, where it was renamed "mustard". It was actually beyond the Alps that, starting from the "burning must", one created the popular moutarde de Dijon, made from vinegar, salt and mustard seeds.

Mustard in ancient Rome

The nutritional use of mustard is also praised by Lucius Junius Columella, the Roman writer of the first century A.D., author of De re rustica, where we read: «Thoroughly clean some mustard seeds and sieve them; then wash them with cold water and, once they are well washed, leave them rest for two hours in water. After that, remove them from water and squeeze them in your hand, put them again in a new or clean mortar and crush them with a pestle. [...] Add white and strong vinegar, reshuffle with a pestle, then strain with a strainer. [...] You may use this mustard to serve sauces».

Italian mustards

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the words "mostarda" and "mustard" in the Italian culinary tradition are not synonymous.

The two terms moutarde and mustard, although phonetically and graphically similar, have therefore a different meaning from the Italian word and should not be confused with it. Indeed, Italian mostarda is a kind of fruit salad with syrup in sweetened water, where the famous spicy taste is given by added mustard essential oil, which also helps to best preserve a perishable food such as fruit: right this peculiarity was exploited for the first time by the monks in the Middle Ages who needed to have edible products in the Winter months.

Mostarda: Cremona vs Mantua

Although mostarda - in its diversity - has spread to several cities of the Po valley, that of Cremona and Mantua is the most famous. The first was described by Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina after his birthplace (Piadena), and commonly referred to in English as Bartolomeo Platina, in his De honesta voluptate et valetudine, and is prepared with mixed candied fruit and essential mustard oil. The second, the first news of which come from Gonzaga documents that testify to the presence of this preparation on the table of the lords of Mantua, involves the use of two varieties of a single fruit: quince and campanina apple, adding, as always, essential oil of mustard.

Create new flavours in the kitchen

The essential oil of mustard is just one of the many essential oils that can find use in the kitchen; the contribution of these essences in terms of aroma is a gift that will surely delight the palate of the finest gourmets. «Extremely interesting, for example, is the use of an essential oil with the fresh or dried plant from which it was extracted […]. Essential oils are the paradise of an experimenter and creative cook: it is as if a painter were donated an entire range of extra colours» (R. Deiana, Gli oli essenziali in cucina, Milano 2010).




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