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France is running out of mustard…

Mustard display at the Cite de la Gastronomie et du Vin, Dijon

There’s a crisis in France.  It’s running out of mustard.  Says so in the Washington Post.  Empty shelves, rationing, black market intrigue — they’re all part of the calamity.

I’m shocked. At the Post, not the mustard. This is the newspaper that saved democracy from Watergate, and it devotes 35 column inches to Grey Poupon?

What’s this world coming to? To the bitter end, if you ask a French person. Which I did.

“Nothing else can replace mustard,” our dear friend Charlotte Boizard wailed. “The French love their mustard with a good steak or with a plat de charcuterie.”

Charlotte sold us a house in France three years ago. We trust her instinctively. If this mustard business really is a crisis, she would know. She says it is.

“You can’t imagine having an Andouillette without mustard,” says Charlotte. “It would be a crime.” Andouillette is sausage made from pig intestines. Not sure that mustard is the crime here.

Nevertheless, France is reeling from a condiment drought. Domestic mustard seed production has declined. In Canada, where 80 percent of France’s seeds are sourced, it has collapsed.

Some French groceries have run out of mustard. Others limit purchase to a single jar. Scofflaws purchase their meager quota, sneak back in and buy more from another clerk. It’s anarchy on Aisle 6.

This is no laughing matter, which some readers suggest would make a good name for this column. Consider:

  • An average Frenchman consumes 2.2 pounds of mustard annually, a world record.
  • The French put mustard on everything from seafood to pasta, please don’t tell that to an Italian.
  • The French began using mustard in 1336, long before there were hot dogs to put it on.

Desperate Frenchmen are hoarding mustard, says the Washington Post. Americans understand that behavior. We hoard toilet paper. Perhaps a trade agreement? Two rolls for every jar?

We purchased 36 ounces of mustard in the U.S. last week. We have two choices: 1) put it on corned beef, or 2) or donate it to the French Red Cross. There’s a third, albeit dicier option. We could sell on the black market. Note to Customs at Charles De Gaulle Airport: just kidding.

At first glance, France’s mustard crisis didn’t seem dire. There’s still mayonnaise, after all. Then someone pointed out the tragic consequence – no mustard, no steak tartare. Time to call in U.N. peacekeepers.

You may be unfamiliar with the steak tartare concept. Or you may gag at it. Basically, it’s raw, minced beef mixed with raw egg and other stuff. A key ingredient of the dish: mustard. See the problem? Forget boeuf bourguignon – steak tartare is France’s signature dish. Now it’s on the endangered list.

Some steak tartare recipes substitute Worcestershire Sauce for mustard. But that’s a British-inspired conspiracy. It led to the Hundred Years War. You could look it up.

A popular caricature of Mongol warriors – Tartars – had them tenderizing meat under their saddles, then eating it raw. This could have been the genesis of steak tartare. Or maybe rump roast, I’m not sure. Either way, you’d want mustard on it, wouldn’t you?

French mustard seeds come from around Dijon. This is in Burgundy. You may have learned about it on one of the mustard-tasting tours Burgundy is famous for. Farmers there are being urged to convert more hectarage to mustard cultivation.

Mustard is known as the world’s leading condiment, even outside of France. More than 300,000 metric tons are consumed annually. It’s believed that Romans first brought mustard to France. The French wish they’d come back with more.

Since that’s not going to happen, here’s another idea: make your own.  The recipe follows.

  • Soak ¾ cup of mustard seeds in a cup of vinegar and water.
  • Grind/smoosh seeds in a blender.
  • Spice with thyme, salt or turmeric.

There is only one other way out of this mess. Ketchup. That could work in other parts of the world. But in France, it won’t cut the mustard.

Mike Zampa is a media relations consultant and former newspaper editor and columnist who, along with his wife, splits time between the Dordogne Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.

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