Not many people know it, but Saskatoon is the de facto mustard capital of the world.
Mustard is a condiment usually associated with other, more exotic locales. Dijon is the most famous, with its iconic Maille and Grey Poupon brands, but Provence, Russia, Bavaria, England and China all lay claim to some of the spicy stuff’s renown. And of course, nothing’s more American than a hot dog slathered with bright yellow mustard, probably French’s.
Yet almost all mustard owes its flavour to Prairie terroir — and it turns out it’s not so ridiculous to speak of terroir when talking mustard. Between 70 and 80% of annual global mustard seed exports originate in the Prairies, most of it grown in the so-called Wheat Province. Despite this, on the world mustard map, you won’t find a monument to the place where most of it is grown. Although we sustain the world market, there is no domestic product that answers to the name of Canadian Mustard. I decided to visit the natives of the world’s mustard basket and find out why.
The word “mustard” derives from the Latin mustum ardens, meaning “burning must,” which refers to a condiment produced by medieval French monks who mixed mustard seed with unfermented wine. As an agricultural crop, mustard first made its appearance in Canada in 1936, occupying 40 hectares in Alberta. Since then, it has flourished in the brown and dry-brown soils of the southern Prairies, whose farmers today produce up to 300,000 tons of mustard seed annually.
Patrick Ackerman is one of them. On a farm about eight kilometres south of Chamberlain, Sask., in the middle of a vast landscape blazing with bright yellow mustard and canola fields, Ackerman grows 6,000 acres of mustard, divided between the three varieties Canada is known for — yellow (Sinapis alba), brown and oriental (Brassica juncea). He also works to promote mustard as chair of the Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission (SMDC).
The king of the mustard chefs is Moe Mathieu. He’s also a founder of the annual Great Saskatchewan Mustard Festival
Ackerman says the world couldn’t do without Prairie mustard. “It’s in the soil, it’s in the environment … there’s a few things that happen in this climate right here that makes mustard taste the way it does, and have the functionality that it does,” he says.
This is the terroir aspect of mustard, the idea that a seed’s flavour is a specific expression of the place it was grown. It’s a romantic concept, even when applied to a fiery oilseed: that you can taste how the earth works on its produce.
While rich Prairie soils power the global mustard trade, Ackerman concedes that Canadians don’t do a whole lot of actual mustard making. The bulk of his crop is exported to the U.S. and Europe.
Still, a few local producers have embraced mustard as a local treasure. Sitting at his kitchen table, Ackerman lets me sample some of the best Saskatchewan-based contenders for Canada’s mustard. Of particular note is the Saskatoon Berry variety produced by Gravelbourg Gourmet Mustards, a small company operating since 2008. Even Gravelbourg, though, skews European with its other recipes, offering French and German styles. (They also make a mean jalapeno version.)
In downtown Saskatoon, mustard is on the town’s hottest menus. A chokecherry version plays off the nouveau rustic dishes coming out of the kitchen at The Hollows, a locavore restaurant in the hip Riversdale neighbourhood. Top Chef Canada winner Dale Mackay serves three kinds of mustard as a complement to the charcuterie at his slick Ayden Kitchen & Bar.
The king of the mustard chefs is Moe Mathieu. A restaurateur and chef instructor who trained at such international hotspots as the French Laundry, Mathieu recently helped put together the menu at Cut, a casual steakhouse near the Delta Bessborough Hotel. He’s also one of the founders of the Great Saskatchewan Mustard Festival, held annually in Regina.
Mathieu launched the festival as a way to drum up love for the unsung seed. It started out as a modest event, with Mathieu and a few friends sitting around, drinking beer and sharing mustard-friendly food. Within a few years, though, it started attracting chefs from other towns, who began experimenting with unconventional uses for mustard, such as mustard ice cream. Last year’s festival drew hundreds of people.
Mathieu is encouraged by the prevalence of mustard on Saskatoon’s better menus. “At the spots that are doing the local, seasonal food, mustard always has a place,” he says. “And the more of those places that spring up, the better the opportunity there is for us to actually have a brand that has a national [presence]. … All it takes is one specific place, and it could explode that mustard.”
Mathieu also thinks, however, that as Canadians, we might just be too polite to annex mustard as a national staple. “We’re almost bashful of having anything great to talk about,” he says.
So perhaps it’s counter-intuitive to make a hot fuss over having our own mustard. Maybe it’s best to keep mum and just enjoy the cosmopolitanism of mustard’s peculiar burn. This week, though, it’s worth taking a moment to remember: Your burger has Saskatchewan to thank for its Grey Poupon.