BEAUNE, France — It comes to you with polite aggressiveness. You not know which sense to unleash first in order to fully savor, swoon and succumb. Caroline Riboteau watches you and just smiles. She knows exactly what is happening. Her eyes do not wander from the intense, amazing entry of mustard to the visitor. They only shimmer in pride. It happens frequently, even to an experienced sentinel of senses as I. For past that glass, in an immaculate room with millstone grinders and talented mustard maestros, comes perhaps the world’s best mustard. Proud history that continues a prothonotary of perfection among the best kitchens and most knowledge palettes.
Mine could not wait to indulge.
This is more than a tour. It is a culinary tour de force. The mustard here is a travelogue for all the senses, testing and taking your skin, your eyes, you nose and then the tongue. It is nothing less than a crescendo of senses to the explosion of mystery and intrigue that rapidly flows on a whitewater rapids-like journey to taste.
To visit the world’s best family-owned mustard facility is a step into culinary heaven. In Beaune, France — itself a masterpiece of gastronomical and sensual pleasures — the Edmond Fallot mustardy is the last great independent mustard mill in Burgundy. This gem has been in the Fallot family since 1840 and the treasure remains in its original location, 200 meters from city center on Beaune.
“We are very proud of it,” Marc Desarmenien, today’s Fallot family patriarch, tells me after I make it through the factory. “In our family, we always have loved good and fine foods.”
He knows what the family faces in the tough competitive world of fine cuisine condiments. “We have to innovate all the time to create an interest in our brand of Mustard,” Desarmenien says. “We associate good and natural ingredients in our products and that’s what the consumers love today.”
I had just missed National Mustard Day — a seemingly perfect time to visit and savor — yet that did not diminish the welcome of Desarmenien or the sumptuous stroll of the senses.
A quick walk from town center of Beaune brings you to 31 Rue du Faubourg Bretonniere, where the mustard masterpieces await. Gaze at more history while walking past La Belle Epoque, a hotel created from an old French trading house, and then past the La Dilettante bar, where nervous staff plead with customers to be quiet at night so as not to disturb the neighbors.
There are no such concerns at the Fallot mustardy. At the unadorned archway entrance there always seems to be dozens of eager visitors waiting for a tour, excited voices babbling in anticipation. No one seems content to queue when the gift shop calls with all styles and sizes of mustard and vinegar.
As they bubble about, I proceed.
Riboteau leads me past old milling equipment into a small elevator that soon deposits me into a brightly colored corridor. Within a few steps, the floor begins to vibrate and wisps of water spray at me from the sides. It reminds me of a ride called Noah’s Ark in my hometown amusement park in Pittsburgh.
It is not for amusement, however. This is your chance to be one with the mustard seed, to get a sense of what they are going through in their first steps to becoming mustard — shaken and washed, but not crushed, Riboteau says.
The Fallot mustardy is the only mustard manufacturer to mill the mustard seeds with stone grinders. This is one way of the natural methods embraced and, as Riboteau says, helps maintain all the gustatory qualities of the seed in the paste. Soon the good stuff will commence.
Mustard is both a world-wide delight and a proudly toutedregional staple. Many in Beaune will urge you to eat meals that permit mustard the opportunity to announce its rich taste and companion powers — from that of a partner with charcuterie and bread ranging up to heartier mates such as poulet de Bresse, a locally raised whole chicken.
When mustard makers began moving towards mass production in the 1970s, Fallot stuck to its historical ballast and stayed the course of craftsmanship in its own way to preserve the true mustard.
For example, Desarmenien helped spearhead the cultivation of mustard seeds in Burgundy. That that culminated one decade ago when the Fallot Burgundy Mustard won the protected designation of origin indication (PDO).
That means the seeds come from local cultivation, are mixed with Burgundy white wine and the final product is made in Beaune – an unmatched culinary trifecta, many will proclaim.
That also means you can — in a sense — walk back in time and swap mustard with the Dukes of Burgundy, who set the firm recipe for mustard during the Middle Ages. Burgundy exists now as a culinary entity and not political, yet its reach — from wine and to this mustard — extends around the world in a way the Dukes could not begin to imagine. Ballpark franks and pretzels may not genuflect, though they should.
According to local history, until World War Two mustard was cultivated in woodlands. At the time, a large number of charcoal kills were used in Burgandy and the discarded ashes from charcoal burning — rich in potash — were a natural boost for mustard seeds.
When the plant reached maturity, the seed was gathered and sold to the Dijon region’s mustard makers. Then the large number of charcoal producers and smaller population level was a combo that permitted mustard seed cultivation to sufficiently supply the Burgundy mustard producers. That changed dramatically when demand for charcoal for industrial use plummeted. Left were fewer charcoal burners and fewer seeds cultivated, forcing mustard maker to seek supplies elsewhere — even to go outside of France to Canada and the United States,.
There was a second setback when in the 1960s disease hit the vines that produced the grapes that were the source of the juice mixed with mustard seed. Fallot used to mix verjus – an acidic “green” juice of under-ripe Burgundy grapes — with the ground mustard seeds. Today, with that bitter juice long gone, they use white wine and vinegar.
Any difference in taste is a secret known to only a but a few, with this guest not among those in the know.
Riboteau directs my eyes to the various workers — only 20 in the entire factory — as they maneuver the seeds and then guide the finished mustard and its languid flow from the mills to vats and jars.
“We perpetuate the tradition of making good Mustards, using the best seeds from Burgundy and using millstones to crush them,” Desarmenien says. “It guarantees an artisanal process. We prefer to produce the best than to produce the most.”
Because the Fallot mustard has earned the protected appellation, there is a second process where the husks of the seeds are removed, Riboteau tells me. That means the first happy consumers of the Fallot magic are not always human, but the cows and rabbits that receive the husks and other detritus.
My ears and nose are still embraced by the mustard’s capturing tease.
Fallot offers two tours that include a history of mustard and a look at production. Those not on the tour are encouraged to visit the tasting room, where pumps offering many of the 30-some mustard options are available to try. All are available for purchase.
Good luck trying to select.
All the mustards belong to Burgundy’s culinary heritage and are of the highest quality producing traditional and original flavors.
I wanted to try all of them, and then try them again. So I did. And then I still could not choose which eight to pack in a travel box. I left that to Riboteau. Aux Noix, Au Pinot Noir, A La Truffle de Bourgogne, Au Basilic, Au Vin Jaune du Jura, Au Safran and Mustarde de Bourgogne — names are as tempting as the taste they deliver.
You have no chance. So enjoy. All hail the new Duke of Mustard.
BIO: Tom Squitieri is a three-time winner each of the Overseas Press Club and White House Correspondents’ Association awards for his work as a war correspondent. He reported from all seven continents, always writing as a voice for the voiceless. www.redsnowltd.com @TomSquitieri