To make Mustard.
Chuse good clear Seed, and pick it, and wash it clean in cold Water; drain it, and rub it very dry in a clean Cloth; then pound it in a Mortar, with the best white-wine Vinegar, and strain it, not too thin, and keep it always close cover'd, or it will lose it's Strength.
---Court cookery. R. Smith, 1725.
Cutting the mustard:
There is much speculation regarding the origin of this idiom, but the most reputable sources trace its usage from the late 1600s when the phrase “keen as mustard” was used to describe someone of high standards.
Combined with “cutting,” which is often used in place of “exhibiting” (think: cutting a fine figure), and you get the modern, idiomatic equivalent of “exhibiting high standards.”
In Shakespeare’s in Henry IV, Part 2, Falstaff has the line: “his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury Mustard” (Act 2, Scene 4).
Falstaff is describing his friend Ned Poins, but it presents the question, what was Tewkesbury Mustard?
Turns out this type of mustard was developed in Tewkesbury, Gloucs., and it was not only popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but during the 17th century it was considered a staple condiment.
And mustard is still being made the way it was made in Shakespeare’s lifetime at the Tewkesbury Mustard Company.
There are no written recipes on how to make Tewksbury Mustard prior to 1830, but we can tell from records like Shakespeare’s plays that mustard was used, and popular.
However, exactly how it was made in 16-17th century Tewksbury remains a bit of a mystery. There is one record which includes using an old canon ball to mash the mustard into a powder.
(Tewksbury was the site of the last battle in the War of the Roses, and was therefore littered with canon balls.)
Tewksbury Mustard comes in balls, not jars.
The mustard is ground up, dried, and formed into a tight ball that is “as hard as a canon ball.”
Mustard balls allowed for efficient travel, allowed it to be carried along rough roads and in paniers, which were basically traveling backpacks for merchants delivering goods.
Tewksbury mustard is used to add flavor to breads, meats, or other edibles.
To reconstitute the mustard, you break off a piece onto your plate using a knife. Then you mixed whatever liquid you have – water, ale, wine, etc. — and reconstitute the dried mustard into a paste which is then smeared over whatever you wanted to eat.
Presumably Shakespeare and 17th century travellers would have a ball in their pouch. Or maybe mustard balls were widely available in kitchens and diningrooms? We just don’t know.
There is some archival evidence of orders for mustard, like the 50 lbs. ordered by Arnie Hall, which suggest that mustard was second only to salt as an essential table item.
There are several references that indicate Tewksbury mustard was famous in 1597, when Shakespeare was writing about it, and it can be dated back to Henry VIII for popularity.
There is an anecdotal tale of Henry VIII visiting Tewksbury in 1535, with his new wife Anne Boleyn, and they were feasted at Tewksbury Abbey, where there were mustard balls wrapped in gold leaf served on the table.
Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.