From the mildest yellow seed (Brassica alba) to the more pungent, respectively: brown(Brassica juncea) and black seed (Brassica nigra), mustards are one of worlds oldest known spices carried and cultivated by the human race.
The seeds are known to have been cultivated in India as far back as 3000 BC and in Egypt, mustard seeds have been found in the tombs of the ancient pharaohs.
The paste of ground mustard seeds blended with liquid or oil is the oldest condiment known, although no one knows for sure who first used it to flavor food. Prepared mustard dates back at very least to the Romans, who ground the seeds and mixed them with wine to create their own pungent paste. The spicy seed was then carried and spread throughout Europe via their conquering legions. In some cultures the condiment utilized unfermented grape juice, called must (from the Latin mustum ardens) which lead the condiment to become known as mustard meaning roughly: "burning wine". The potent pastes were slathered on meats to bring fire to the digestive organs, to help break down the fatty protein and likely helped disguise the flavor of meat that may have been well past its prime. The volatile oils in mustard also exhibit antiseptic activity (due to strong sulphur compounds) which may have provided a pungent layer of protection on the surface of spoiling flesh and perhaps saved many a soul from a long miserable night of digestive distress.
In 1768, early Pennsylvania German apothecary Johann Christopher Sauer added an entry on mustard seed in his multi~volumed Sauer’s Herbal Cures (recently translated to English by William Woys Weaver)
Sauer’s Mustard Sauce Recipe “…a very good mustard sauce may be prepared in the following manner: Take vinegar and put it in a glass bottle with enough ground mustard to make it thick. Add a little sugar and let it stand for twenty four hours. It is then ready for eating. If the bottle is kept well corked, this mustard will keep well for many weeks, especially during cool weather…” To the right is a photo of my own homemade mustard and a link back to the original post and recipe that includes fresh garlic mustard leaves as well as yellow and brown mustard seeds.
Culinary uses aside, Sauer also recommended the sauce to “purify the head, warm the stomach, clear the chest and promote expectoration in the lungs and also the flow of urine…”
The medicinal virtues of black and brown mustard seeds are classified as hot and drying. However these virtues are only released in their full potential when the coating of the seed has been bruised and exposed to a liquid.
Interestingly, on this continent, mustard seed along with flax seed were two of the earliest and most prolific export crops grown in colonial Pennsylvania. Not only did the influx of Germans and English demand suitable stimulating digestive condiments to serve alongside their own fatty meats, they also relied heavily on the tiny seeds for their powerful medicinal qualities. Don't be mislead by it's tiny size, freshly ground mustard seed packs a whallop.
The ability to stimulate circulation is also evident as a topical treatment for cold or stagnant conditions such as damp pneumonia or cold stiff muscles or joints. A warming mustard plaster, liniment or oil will increases blood flow to the area by 'drawing up the flesh and turning it red'. A goodly snort of crushed seeds will produce a head clearing sneeze. A deep massage with mustard infused oil will warm and release all but the most resistant contracted muscles.
Along with culinary and medicinal uses, a few interesting folk uses of mustard seeds linger in cultures around the world: In Germany, new brides still sew mustard seeds into the hems of their wedding dresses to insure that their husbands don't dominate them in their life together. In Denmark and India, it is believed that spreading mustard seeds around the exterior of the home will keep out evil spirits. The ancient Chinese considered mustard a stimulating aphrodisiac.
Currently, black mustard seeds are 'losing heat' in the commercial market. The brown seeds are easier to harvest with machines, thus reducing the economic expense of harvesting by hand. The majority of mustard seeds grown for world consumption are cultivated by Canada, Montana and North Dakota. However our wild native Crucifeara family members include Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis) and Penny Cress (Thlapsi arvense) can be collected and also used accordingly. However harvesting the seeds can be a long and arduous process.
~~ The next blog post will detail a step by step mustard plaster as applicable to the chest in the case of mucus that is difficult to expectorate. This post is one in part of January's blog party challenge on Warming Herbs and Spices. Please visit host Yael's blog and warm your hands by the herbal fire happening at Dirttime.org