The Great Dijon Mustard Crisis in France

Surgical masks and paracetamol to fight Covid-19. Microchips from Asia for European automakers. Sunflower oil from Ukraine for restaurants and households. All have been in short supply at times since the start of the pandemic. But now things are getting serious for lovers of French cuisine: the country is running out of mustard.

“I eat a lot of mustard,” French musician Didier Marouani told me with barely concealed panic, “but there is no mustard in Paris. I went around 25 stores, and found nothing – well, there is mustard, but not tasty.

A visit to the nearest Monoprix supermarket confirms the severity of the crisis. There is no mustard at all. And although the local shop on the corner sells two types of mustard: bright yellow Colman mustard, brought from England, and a sweet and sour mixture mixed with honey.

There is no sign of the smooth Dijon mustard so prized by the French – Amora and Maille are popular brands, and like the Colman brand, both are owned by Unilever. It’s the condiment we used to spend our teen money on endless slices of baguette when we hitchhiked through France in the 1970s.

It’s the same story in the Mediterranean. As I write this, I just received a WhatsApp message from a concerned colleague: “Guys. Corsica also ran out of mustard. This is the talk of the town.”

Mustard growers in Burgundy say they have been hit by a triple disaster that has reduced mustard seed stocks. Brassica junceathe so-called brown mustard used for the Dijon product.

First, there has been bad weather in Burgundy itself and in Canada linked to climate change, in particular last year’s heatwave in North America, which cut important Canadian mustard seed exports in half. Then there was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had previously been a backup source of supply. And finally, importers are facing Covid-related global transport and transport congestion.

“We didn’t think we would be in such a deficit,” says Luc Vandermasen, managing director of producer and exporter Reine de Dijon, who also leads the Burgundy Mustard Association.

Wholesale seed prices have doubled or tripled normal levels for some shipments, and retail prices have risen nearly 10 percent over the past year. Vandermasen says the financial impact on consumers is minimal given the average Frenchman spends just €4.80 a year on mustard, but if shortages continue it could deprive French people of a vital cooking ingredient.

Bertrand Chauveau, head chef at Garance, a gastronomic restaurant in the chic 7th arrondissement of Paris, explains to me, a culinary layman, that Dijon mustard is used not only for salad vinaigrettes, but also for flavoring remoulade, a spicy mayonnaise served with cold lobster, crab and shrimp. “It’s the basis of French cuisine,” he says. “That’s what makes mayonnaise yellow.” I always thought it was egg yolks.

Showo and other chefs have recently run into supply issues with everything from aluminum foil to products containing sunflower oil, but he’s not too short on mustard for his kitchen because he uses high-quality, artisanal brands made from seeds. grown in France.

In the meantime, ordinary buyers have learned all about the “heat dome” that ruined the Canadian crop, and discovered that “Dijon mustard” does not mean that the seeds themselves must be from Burgundy, because it is not controlled appellation of origin.

Meanwhile, Marouani has found a potential savior in Ukraine, where his musical protégé once performed at a concert in Kherson with Marouani’s band Space, which has a large following in Eastern Europe. “He is my son of music and he says he will buy me mustard from Ukraine and ship it by DHL,” says Marouani.

In the long term, Vandermaesen hopes the agricultural research program will lead to higher yields and greater resistance to frost and insects that have decimated recent Burgundy mustard crops. “We are very confident that production in France will increase in the coming years,” he says, “but we will have difficult months.”

victor.mallet@ft.com