In French there’s a saying: “se croire le premier moutardier du pape.” Roughly translated, it means, “he thinks he’s the pope’s mustard maker.” It describes someone who’s perhaps a bit too proud of himself. The story goes that Pope John XXII got a hankering for the unique purple mustard of his hometown in southwestern France, so he called up his nephew (or sent him a letter, or a papal carrier pigeon—however popes got in touch with their nephews 650 years ago) and invited him to the papal palace to be his own personal mustard maker. I wonder if he just liked purple for its royal connotations, or if he couldn’t bear meals without his hometown mustard?
Despite the papal seal of approval, that purple mustard never really made it big.
When Elie-Arnaud Denoix started making mustard at his family’s cognac distillery in the Périgord region of in southwestern France, the purple mustard of his childhood was all but extinct. He decided to revive it, and after a year of making batch after batch of it he landed on a recipe that he thought tasted like the traditional product. To verify his tastebuds’ intuition, he took it to a nearby village and gave it to as many of the older townsfolk as he could, the ones who grew up eating it. He asked them if it was the mustard they remembered. Half of them told him it was exactly right; half of them said it was completely wrong. Elie counted that as success and started production.
Denoix’s violet mustard is purple because it’s half grape juice.
More specifically, grape must: freshly pressed juice that includes stuff like skins, seeds, and stems. Using grape must is a very old way to make mustard. The word “mustard” actually derives from the Latin mustum, for grape must, and ardens , for burning, so I’d bet the mustard eaten in ancient Rome looked a lot like violet mustard. By 1407 mustard makers in Dijon, France had switched from using must to vinegar and most of the mustard world followed suit. In Périgord vinegar was more precious as medicine than as food, so they kept using must.
Elie usually uses local grapes for the must, and he looks for ones with a lot of color and sugar. After the juice is pressed it’s heated to evaporate the water and concentrate the flavor. Then he adds the must to a blend of two mustard seeds: mostly there are a lot of milder yellow seeds, but he also includes a small amount of more pungent black seeds. The mix is ground very lightly in a stone mill, leaving lots of the seeds intact and making the mustard a bit crunchy.
Mustard is at its spiciest about 15 minutes after it’s mixed together, but most of us are unlikely to ever try it that fresh unless we make our own. From there it gets mellower with time. Since the violet mustard is meant to be sweet and mellow, Elie ages each 200-pound batch for eight weeks before jarring it. The result is a remarkably soft and sweet mustard with only the barest whisper of heat.
By the way, there are no violets—as in the flowers—in this mustard, as I assumed when I first heard about it. The “violet” is in the name is because violet is the French word for purple.
Violet mustard is really, really good with cheese.
I especially love it paired with the Manchester made by Zingerman’s Creamery—together they’re earthy, tangy, creamy and crunchy from the caviar pop you get from biting down on the whole mustard seeds. (We sell those two paired together in their own gift box.) Elie really likes violet mustard with blue cheese . He also likes it with boudin sausage and cooked apples, a traditional way to serve violet mustard in Périgord. Blended with a bit of balsamic it also makes an incredible sauce for a steak—and if the current pope had his own personal violet mustard maker, I’d bet that, given his Argentinian roots, that’s how he’d want it served.