Brassica Mustard creates grainy goodness

Jacob Richler on a business that started as a homemade Christmas present
Jacob Richler
Photograph by Reena Newman

The charcuterie board draped with thin, ruffled slices of mortadella at Charcut Roast House in Calgary is easily one of the best bar snacks available a mari usque ad mare. And while this distinction hinges on the quality of the house-made sausage, there is something else: the mustard always served with it.

The company that makes it is called Brassica Mustard. The style is what the English call whole-grain, grainy, grained or granary mustard, and the French know as moutarde de Meaux or moutarde à l’ancienne. But this one is different—most notably in its mouth feel, where each of its yellow and brown mustard seeds seems to pack a lively little pop.

“Almost like tobiko!” company co-founder Desmond Johnston concurred from his home in Calgary, referencing the flying-fish roe sushi chefs deploy for crunch.

Unlike tobiko, each of the seeds in his grainy mustard tastes as if wrapped in a slippery, viscous coating, a product of its natural oils. Why these seem so assertive when you taste Brassica’s mustard alongside similar products is unclear, but the explanation is likely rooted in its freshness and purity. Mustard’s heat and pungency is the product of a chemical reaction provoked by the addition of water and arrested, most typically, with the addition of vinegar or some other acidic compound. The traditional recipe for grainy mustard illustrates the concept at its most basic, for it features little other than mustard seed, water, vinegar and spices. When Johnston mixes up his 500-litre batches (after his day job as a culinary instructor at SAIT Polytechnic), he uses only mustard seed, water, white wine vinegar, spices and salt.

Canada is one of the two largest producers of mustard seed (we periodically exchange first place with Nepal). Commercial production began on the Prairies in Alberta in 1936, but 80 per cent of Canada’s crop now comes from Saskatchewan. Still, the Alberta-grown seed in Brassica’s mustard is no different from the Saskatchewan crops that account for most of the mustard prepared by, say, Grey Poupon or Maille in Dijon, France. But compare the ingredient list for Brassica’s grained mustard to the industry standard à l’ancienne by Maille and you will find that the French product includes a muddle of preservatives and flavour-enhancers like sugar, dextrose, lactic acid, sulphites and that mysterious and dreaded catch-all, “flavour.”

Sampled side by side, the Maille mustard smells and tastes sharp, aggressive and highly acidic, where the Brassica version speaks only softly of its vinegar content, and allows all its component flavours to shine through. While the former has a texture that is mushy and crushed, the crunch and pop of the Brassica endures even when heated or cooked—say, when stirred into veal jus as a sauce for sausages.

I can attest to this because about a year ago, when Charcut chefs Connie deSousa and John Jackson did a guest event at Toronto’s Bymark, they served bison-heart kielbasa with a side of you-know-what. And I left the dinner with all the leftover mustard.

With that gone, I was delighted to learn just last week that Brassica is for sale nationwide via mail order from their website at $13.95 for 500 ml (double the price of Maille).

This cottage industry grew out of yuletide thrift. In 1995, Johnston, then a restaurant chef, and his girlfriend—now wife and business partner—made mustard to give to their families for Christmas. “It went over really well. So well that the next year we decided to try and sell some at a few craft stores and food fairs—and they loved it!”

A few years later, a new breed of Calgary restaurant was embracing the local food movement—and Brassica mustard was a natural fit. Production evolved from small jars sold to craft sales to large pails delivered to hotels and restaurants. Early flavours like almond and sherry vinegar gave way to blends like roasted garlic and cranberry. And year by year, money was invested in the business—better packaging, professionally designed labels and so on. The quality remains the same: simple and pure rules the day.

“We use natural vinegars instead of lactic acid, honey instead of dextrose, and don’t add anything we don’t have to,” Brown explained. “ You don’t have to do much to high-quality products to look like a hero.”