Speaking a common language has many advantages but it also has its pitfalls. Whilst the words may be the same, the definition may not. The most innocent expression can dramatically change its meaning simply by dint of crossing an ocean. The risk of assuming that a word used in one culture means the same in another is particularly apparent in the field of cookery. At least when presented with a dish possessing an unfamiliar name, the cautious diner is prompted to inquire of their host what it is they are eating and may thus be protected from the accidental ingestion of molluscs, amphibians, testes, eyeballs or insects.

Not so when the nomenclature is familiar. A prime example of this is the collection of condiments known as mustard. Although superficially all relishes under this appellation are derived from the same plant, the differences are considerable. A particular hazard is the difference between the American and English varieties. On a plate, they look more or less alike, being a bright yellow sauce with a consistency slightly more viscous than that of ketchup. They may even be served in similar vessels, although American mustard is considerably more likely to be contained in a plastic bottle, whereas English tends to be found in a bowl or jar and served with a spoon. American mustard, with its mild, vinegar-like flavour may be cheerfully slathered all over a hot-dog with wild abandon. A guest of Albion however should be cautioned against such usage.

The flavour of traditional English food oscillates between bland and strong, rarely passing through the subtle middle-ground occupied by continental cuisine. With the exception of ubiquitous salt and pepper, condiments tend either to be absent or overwhelming and only rarely complimentary. English mustard typifies this tradition. Properly made, it will annihilate competing flavours with extreme prejudice, filling the mouth with a fiery burning sensation comparable to chilli in its intensity. Attempts to apply it in the quantities appropriate to its American cousin will result in eye-watering pain. A teaspoon-full will provide adequate relish for most meals. It is very cruel and certainly not in the slightest bit funny to serve English mustard to someone who is ignorant of its qualities.

Correct Preparation and Service

Proper English mustard is not bought ready made in a jar. Instead, a tin of powder is acquired and mixed into a paste with water. For reasons of preservation, manufactured mustard frequently uses vinegar instead, which although not unpleasant as a condiment in its own right, is far closer to the American version in flavour, the acidity of the vinegar neutralising some of the spicy heat. Care should be taken when mixing mustard at home, only a very small amount of water is required, a few drops for every teaspoon of powder will be sufficient. This can be hard to judge, but over-saturation will result in a thin liquid similar to gravy in consistency and consequentially difficult to marshal on a plate.

English mustard can be served with virtually any traditional English dish, and is particularly recommended with cold meats such as ham or beef, but in common with its American counterpart, its true partner is the sausage. That is, the traditional British “banger”, ideally cooked to bursting and accompanied by mashed potatoes and gravy. With a high quality Lincolnshire or Cumberland sausage, only a small quantity of mustard need be applied. However if the diner is confronted with a comestible of more dubious pedigree, wisdom may decree a little more be employed, and thus even the most ecologically sound sausage may be rendered edible. In fact, a connoisseur may find themselves deliberately opting for meats from the bottom shelf simply as an excuse for the more liberal application of mustard!