Hunting and gathering. That was about the last time we really knew where our food came from. While grocers are beginning to make the information more readily available to us, it is rare that we are informed where the animals were raised, where each ingredient in each prepared food has traveled from and how it got to here. We forget about the small towns that our specialty products once came from and are so dissociated from what we eat that we can’t bear the site of ungloved hands preparing our food, let alone fathom the hundreds of bare hands that have touched each ingredient before it’s made its way to our plates. This is what was on my mind as I was touring the village of Flavigny Sur Ozerain in Eastern Burgundy in the middle of April. I was visiting the abbey where Anise d’Flavigny pastilles have been produced since the 1500s, motivated to visit the factory in part because of my fondness for these violet (and other flavored) confections as a child, and because I have a curious obsession with manufacturing facilities. A funny thing happened while walking through the shop attached to the factory. While they predominately sell only confections produced onsite, I spied a Taza chocolate display in the corner. Having worked with this local Boston producer, I know just how small and unique they are and was more than a little surprised to see it in this tiny village. At that moment, I truly realized the magnetic pull that artisanal products have to one another, even across international boundaries.
With mustard fields in full bloom*, it seemed only fitting that I discover the essence of the Dijon area. The following day I visited the Fallot Mustard factory in Beaune and treated to a personal tour and tasting. This factory has been producing their (rightfully) famed mustard since 1840 in this small town and tiny facility. Producing Dijon-style and the similar but more delicate and refined Burgundy mustard made with local wine instead of vinegar, this family owned Moutarderie is the only “Dijon” mustard factory to predominately manufacture with mustard seeds grown in the region. Why local when other mustard factories are buying from Canada and elsewhere cheaper? Marc Désarménien, third generation owner believes that creating a truly artisanal product means being able to taste the terroir, or the place that it comes from. Taking it a step further, the spent mustard husks leftover from production of the fine-grained Burgundy mustard are fed to the local Charolais livestock and used in local products such as the Pommard cheese. Sold in twist-top glass jars like other mustards, or charming ceramic white-washed pots with their evocatively French logo, this is great stuff.
All this tasting and talking got me thinking. Do we really need a condiment that has been grown, washed and prepared, and then shipped 3,000 miles? More poignantly, do we need a condiment that has been grown on one continent, shipped 3,000 miles, washed, prepared and then shipped back to the continent it started on, all to season our hot dogs, charcuterie or dressing? Crazy, right?
If nothing else, the French should be admired for their preservation of tradition. Personally, I waiver between a few family traditions and exploration of the wild frontier, but I sometimes think that being the New World melting pot, we are so devoid of tradition and ready to grasp onto the new and wonderful, that we end up with fluorescent yellow mustard in a plastic yellow squeeze bottle to show for it. We have on average 26 types of mustard in the grocery store, rarely one produced within a 500 mile radius (and likely using mustard seeds from another continent). So many choices, few of them great, most of them convenient and economical.
If we were French, we’d more often make the decision to buy a product, not based on its convenient packaging, but on its heritage, geographical proximity and quality. We’d use less and enjoy more. Don’t get me wrong, I love my French mustard, a hot dog calls for yellow mustard, and we aren’t all lucky to have a heritage breed chicken farm nearby, but I think we can do better. We all love imported goods, and our shopping carts full of items from the far corners of the world are a testament to that. However, I invite you to consider whether this shouldn’t be the exception rather than the rule. Isn’t it time for a New World Terroir?
*as it turns out, it wasn’t mustard in bloom, but rapeseed (canola), which is a whole other topic for discussion… Note to future moutarde pilgrims; mustard blooms in May.