A Short History of French and Dijon Mustard

Last Updated on July 7, 2023

Mustards from Burgundy, including from Dijon and Beaune/Alain Dore/Bourgogne Tourisme

From aristocratic extravagance to everyday condiment

In 2022, French mustard shortages made the popular condiment scarce on supermarket shelves around the world, owing in part to an agricultural crisis that’s centered (strangely enough) in North America. The famous moutarde de Dijon (Dijon mustard) has seen particularly harrowing cuts to production, since it’s traditionally made with a particular variety of brown mustard seeds that are primarily grown in Canada.

Severe drought conditions in Canada decimated a large part of the crop this year, causing prices to more than triple for mustard manufacturers. Then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exacerbated the crisis, since Ukraine is a major producer of the white mustard seeds used to produce American-style “yellow mustard” and others popular around the world– leading to greater demand for the brown seed variety.

The result? It’s never been harder (and more expensive) to procure a good jar of French mustard. Of course, hearing about the shortages naturally piqued my curiosity. If France-based mustard producers rely so heavily on Canadian raw ingredients for their products– Canada supplies some 85% of the brown mustard seeds used by manufacturers in France– what’s the history behind the globalization of the trade?

Keep reading for a short history of French mustard, and in particular the origins of Dijon mustard.

A History That Begins in China (& Accelerates With The Dukes of Burgundy)

Mustard has been cultivated for thousands of years as both a condiment and a remedy for various ailments, first in ancient China, then later in Egypt, Greece and by the Roman Empire. In fact, it’s thought that the etymology of the term (in both English and French) stems from the Roman term mustan ardens (burning must), referring to the process by which artisans in Roman Gaul (later France) produced a condiment by using a byproduct of winemaking, grape must.

Historical records indicate that monks at the Abbey in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (now in Paris) experimented with making a thick paste from mustard seeds sometime in the 10th century. The first recipe to appear in France was written in the 13th century.

It was initially made by grinding whole brown seeds and blending them with grape must, and later with juice from unripe green grapes (verjus in French). In the modern period, vinegar, salt and water became common additional ingredients in most mustards; by the 19th century and the advent of industrial manufacturing wine was less commonly used.

Of course, artisanal products such as those bearing the “Moutarde de Bourgogne” (Burgundy Mustard) label are still made with white wine (see more on this below).

A Star on the Tables of Les Ducs de Bourgogne

Mustard was originally produced in most winemaking regions around France, including Bordeaux and the Loire Valley (around Tours). It was in the late 13th or 14th century that Burgundy in particular became famous for quality mustards, thanks in great part to the influence of the Dukes of Burgundy (who ruled over an independent kingdom in medieval France).

The leaders of the powerful Duchy made mustard a prominent fixture on their royal tables, and it soon became a symbol (in France and around the world) of wealth and prestige. Some written records even point to feasts at which guests consumed over 300 liters (or 70 imperial gallons) of mustard cream at a reception held by the Duke of Burgundy in 1336.

{Related: Champagne Owes Its Renown to English Aristocrats}

Mustard-makers formed official guilds in the 16th century. Around that time, there were several products based around the aromatic seed: not only the spreadable condiment so familiar to us today, but also a variety made with almonds, bread, verjus of wine and vinegar; and even mustard powder dried into tangy pastilles or folded into small breads.

But Burgundian artisans had strong competition elsewhere. The Parisian region, including the town of Meaux (famous for its Brie cheeses) was also a powerhouse during the medieval and early Renaissance periods, with producers such as Bordin and Maille founded nearby Paris.

In 18th-century Dijon, meanwhile, Jean Naigeon and his family was a prominent local producer that, legend has it, stressed the importance of using verjus instead of vinegar– thus supposedly championing the “Dijon” way.

19th Century: Charcoal Fertilizer and Factory Production

Early-20th-century postcard showing a French mustard factory and its workers at the Parizot plant in Burgundy
Early-20th-century postcard showing a mustard factory and its workers at the Parizot plant in Burgundy

It was during the 19th century that Burgundy began to truly dominate mustard manufacturing in France. Until World War II, huge swathes of woodlands in the region were used to cultivate mustard seeds, which were planted in charcoal burner clearings associated with kilns set up in the area to burn fuel.

It turns out that charcoal ashes made excellent fertilizer for the cultivation of the seeds. Charcoal producers sowed the seeds as an additional form of revenue, selling them to collectors who in turn sold them to Dijonnais mustard-makers.

But when demand for charcoal waned in the mid 20th-century, the production of mustard seeds in Burgundy declined alongside it. Mustard manufacturers thus largely turned to cultivators in Canada and elsewhere, and with time, most “Dijon” mustard wasn’t produced in the city at all, much less the Burgundy region.

The 19th century also saw the rapid advent of new industrial tools and processes, and family-owned fabriques gave way to immense mustard factories. Maurice Grey (of the famed Grey Poupon brand) was the first manufacturer to open a steam-operated factory; Grey Poupon supplied mustard to the Emperor Napoléon III.

During the “golden age” of mustard in Burgundy and Dijon, production capacity exploded, rising from some 16 or 17 kg a day (around 37 lbs) to over 50 kg per day (110 lbs) for some factories. Steam-powered factories began opening around France, operated by dozens of manufacturers, including long defunct stars such as Naiegon and the Maison Bertrand (their attractive mustard pots in heavy ceramic are shown below).

But what was a competitive local market eventually became concentrated among a few names, most of which remain famous today: Amora, Maille, Grey Poupon and Edmond Fallot.

Global Competition and the “Moutarde de Bourgogne” Label

Many people don’t realize that Dijon mustard isn’t regulated by an official geographic protection label like other French products, including Burgundy wines and French cheeses such as Brie and Roquefort, are. These labels are designed to ensure products are made in the region that bears their name and manufactured exclusively using certain ingredients and recipes.

This means that anyone could theoretically whip together and sell a Dijon-style mustard and refer to the French region, even if no part of the sourcing or manufacturing took place there. And they do– including popular brands from the US, Japan and Canada.

To address this curious lack of regulation around the word “Dijon”, the Burgundy region created a label (indication géographique protégée) to certify mustards that are sourced and manufactured exclusively in Beaune, Dijon and other areas in the region.

To qualify for the label, mustards must be made entirely from seeds grown in Burgundy, unlike many Dijon French mustards that contain primarily seeds sourced from Canada or elsewhere. They are also made with Burgundy AOC white wine, rather than vinegar.

Mustard is poured into jars at the Moutarderie Fallot in Burgundy

Whether or not these “protected” mustards are necessarily better than ones lacking the label is a matter of debate– but some purists might prefer to look for French mustard brands (such as Edmond Fallot) that are certified as “Moutarde de Bourgogne“.

What’s the Traditional Difference Between Ordinary and Dijon Mustard?

Ordinary yellow mustard is typically made with white mustard seeds and colored with turmeric.

The simple answer is that Dijon (and most French) mustards are made with brown mustard seeds instead of white. In addition, commercial “yellow” mustard (think French’s, the classic misnomer brand) is often given a brighter yellow hue thanks to the addition of turmeric.

Dijon and other French mustards are often flavored with herbs including tarragon, winter savory, and sometimes even lavender.

Moutarde à l’ancienne (old-style French mustard) is made with whole mustard seeds.

Dijon mustards tend to have a deeper, slightly spicier flavor and a comparatively brownish hue. They also often (but not always) are made with whole-grain mustard seeds, conferring a grainier texture and a more subtle flavor. Look for labels that read “moutarde à l’ancienne” (old-style mustard).

Mustard-Tasting in Burgundy: A Few Addresses & Tours to Consider

When visiting Burgundy, a mustard-tasting session or tour is in order if you’re a fan of the stuff (or even if the food history aspect intrigues you but you don’t especially care for the condiment.)

Start by poking into the Moutarderie Edmond Fallot in Dijon (at 16 rue de la Chouette). At the shop and mustard bar, you can taste as many mustards as you wish– from French tarragon to Dijon gingerbread or honey and Modena balsamic vinegar– before buying them. Then take a tour at the adjoining atelier (workshop) to get a closer look at traditional mustard-making techniques.

"Moutarde Maille - Rue du Chapeau Rouge and Rue de la Liberté, Dijon" by ell brown is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Moutarde Maille – Rue du Chapeau Rouge and Rue de la Liberté, Dijon” by ell brown is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Continue by visiting the historic Maille mustard shop and “fabrique” (artisan workshop) on Rue de la Liberté in Dijon. Maille, one of several historic mustard-makers in Burgundy, was founded in 1747. At the shop, opened around a century later, you can taste a variety of “mustards on tap” and purchase special edition-mustards in vintage ceramic jars, as well as sampling numerous limited-edition versions.

In Beaune, consider a stop at the Fallot Mustard Mill, technically the only remaining independent mustard production site in Burgundy. Here, as I discovered on a private tour of the premises, you can visit a museum dedicated to the history of mustard-making in the region whose collections include barrels, grinders and other antique tools used to produce the condiment prior to the introduction of more modern industrial techniques in the 19th century.

There’s also a boutique attached to the museum where you can buy a wide variety of products from the iconic brand, as well as taste mustards at the bar.

Where to Find & Taste Good Mustards in Paris

The Maille flagship boutique in Paris is a good destination for Dijon mustard-tasting and buying.

In Paris, you can find a variety of decent Burgundy and Dijon mustards from brands such as Maille and Edmond Fallot at ordinary city supermarkets including Monoprix, Carrefour and Franprix. They’re typically reasonably priced, too.

For more gourmet varieties and flavors, gift sets as well as opportunities to taste and buy limited-edition French mustards, head to food specialty shops such as Lafayette Gourmet, Fauchon, or the Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marché department store.

In addition, Maille has a flagship boutique in Paris, located at 6 Place de la Madeleine, 8th arrondissement. At the tasting bar, sample limited-edition and seasonal mustards made with chardonnay, Sauternes (a sweet dessert wine from France’s southwest), Chablis and black truffle or whisky and smoked pepper.

More on French Food History at Paris Unlocked

The history of French macarons is a disputed, and fascinating, one.

Peruse our other features on the origins of common Gallic treats, from the history of French macarons to the myth-riddled history of the croissant and the invention of brioche bread.

Follow up with a look back at the old wine warehouses that once occupied the banks of the Seine in Paris— but have since disappeared.

You may also want to try your hand at a few classic French desserts for Christmas— and learn about their fascinating history before you flour your counters.

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The history of French and Dijon mustard/Pinterest image by Paris Unlocked

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