The moment I spotted a little article about moutarde violette in a recent issue of Saveur, I got excited. Surely no one would think to flavor mustard with violets. So, could this be a kind of mustard prepared not with vinegar but with must—pressed grape juice—the once common ingredient that gave mustard its French and English names?
Indeed it was. Moutarde violette is today made by members of the Denoix family, whose Maison Denoix has been creating liqueurs and aperitifs from walnuts and fruits in the Limousin region of France since 1839. As Elie-Arnaud Denoix told a New York Times reporter in 2004, ”Moutarde violette was very fashionable during the Belle Époque. But for some reason the demand dropped off in the fifties, and by the eighties it was all but forgotten.” Only one ancient woman in the region was still making it in 1986, when Denoix decided to add it to the family’s product line. He didn’t give the reporter his recipe, but he mentioned that it included cinnamon and cloves. That sounded to me very, very old-fashioned—practically medieval, in fact.
So I was pleased but unsurprised to track down two similar-sounding recipes for mostaza Francesa—French mustard—in Ruperto de Nola’s Libre del Coch, a cookbook written in Catalan and published in Barcelona in 1520.* De Nola’s two recipes differ mainly in method: In one you cook the mustard along with the fresh must, and in the other you boil down the must and then add the mustard and other ingredients, including cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Happily, I had on hand some already boiled-down must, which I’d pressed from wasp-riddled Glenora grapes last summer and reduced to about 15 percent of its original volume. I could make some purple mustard immediately, following de Nola’s second method.
Elie-Arnaud Denoix, the Times reported, “coarsely grinds the seeds instead of pulverizing them, so the mustard has a crunchy texture.” On an Internet forum someone described the Denoix moutarde violette as “wonderful whole-grain black mustard, which looked like caviar.” So I fetched from the cupboard the big, black seeds of Brassica nigra, a native of the Mediterranean region, instead of Brassica juncea, Indian brown mustard, which wouldn’t have been easily available in centuries past, anyway, or Brassica alba, white mustard, which is used along with turmeric in prepared yellow mustard. To make the black mustard seeds easy to grind, I soaked them overnight in a little vinegar, which is a minor ingredient in the Denoix mustard as well. Grinding the seeds the next morning would have been quick in a food processor, coffee grinder, or blender, but because I wanted that caviar look I used a granite mortar (which was probably easiest of all, honestly, since I didn’t have to clean around a blade afterward). I then added my Glenora grape molasses, as I call it, a little salt, spices, and some wine and water to thin the mixture, and I was done.
My moutarde violette tasted good—sweet but not cloying, tart but mildly so, chewy from the coarse-ground seeds, and subtly aromatic from the sweet spices. But I wouldn’t consider it finished until I tasted the Denoix product.
A few days later, I found something called Purple Condiment in a tiny grocery in San Diego’s Little Italy. The words moutarde violette, “violet mustard,” or “purple mustard” were nowhere on the label, but the Denoix name was there. Two days later I sadly gave the jar up to a TSA agent, who was deaf to my protests that it contained a paste, not a liquid or gel (though, yes, I knew that toothpaste is a paste and is also banned from airplanes). Knowing that my precious mustard might be seized, I’d already tasted the stuff three times, the last time only minutes before the agent unrolled my pajamas to extract the little jar. I doggedly held the taste in my mouth through the flight to Portland and the trip to the car park and all through the long drive home, after which I headed straight for the fridge and my own jar of moutarde violette.
Mine was different, I already knew; the Purple Condiment wasn’t caviar-like at all, but smooth as French’s mustard; it looked like melted chocolate. My mustard and Denoix’s were very close in flavor, however.
Was the Purple Condiment the same moutarde violette that others had written about? With a little more investigation I learned that, whereas the Purple Condiment is made by Maison Denoix, the old family business in Brive la Gaillarde, a coarser purple mustard, labeled Moutarde Violette, is manufactured down the road in Turenne, at the Distillerie des Terres Rouge, which dates only to 1988. Mustards are a specialty at Terres Rouge; the website lists 43 types produced there, along with aperitifs, absinthe, pastis, and olive and nut oils.
If a family feud might explain the confusion, the parties are keeping mum. In any case, it was the Terres Rouge mustard that was pictured in Saveur, in a squat glass jar belted with a slender label. Like the Maison Denoix product, the Terres Rouge mustard is available in the United States, so I will look for it on my next big-city trip. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my own homemade moutarde violette.
Here is my recipe:
If you have no grape molasses on hand, but you do have canned or frozen grape juice, whether pressed or heat-extracted, you can boil it down yourself as described here. Feel free to use a non-vinifera variety, like Glenora, provided the grapes are not too foxy.
6 tablespoons black mustard seeds
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ cup grape molasses
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon fine salt
2 tablespoons red wine
2 tablespoons water
Put the mustard seeds into a bowl, and cover them with the vinegar. Let them rest for 8 to 12 hours.
Grind the mustard seeds coarsely. Stir in the grape molasses, spices, salt, and wine. Add the water gradually, to thin the mustard to suit your preference.
Store the mustard in a tightly closed jar.
Makes 1 cup
You can use moutard violette in almost any way you use other prepared mustard. In Brive and its environs, moutard violette is eaten with boiled beef, sausages, hams, and pâté. It should be just as good on sandwiches and in sauces and dressings.
*To be precise, I found Lady Bridghid ni Chiarain’s English translation of a 1529 Spanish translation. The Spanish translation is titled Libro de Guisados.