France’s 2022 mustard shortage and Paris’s 1870 cheese shortage
Sometimes, war and natural disasters end up influencing everyday life in unexpected ways. During the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, for instance, shortages of food staples and favorites led to Parisians eating rats, cats, dogs, and zoo animals, pining after cheese, and auctioning off sacks of potatoes.
Nowadays, food shortages are common in Paris again. During the early days of the pandemic, everyone took up baking and it was hard to find flour and sugar. More recently, the war in Ukraine has meant a shortage of vegetable oil, as well as the threat of a pasta shortage.
Normally, these shortages seem to resolve themselves quickly, one way or another, or maybe it’s just that we get used to them. But in recent weeks, a new food shortage has begun that seems like it will rock French cuisine to its very core.
France is running out of mustard.
Mustard is the condiment of choice for many French people. It’s what ketchup is to me and my fellow Americans.
You can easily find several varieties of mustard in France, notably the extremely popular Dijon mustard, which has a smooth, refined, slightly spicy taste (Gray Poupon is the rough American equivalent) and what Americans call “yellow mustard”.
In France, the latter is generally seen as disgraceful and undesirable. It might be used with fast food, but that’s about it. Far from a mustard connaisseur myself, I once made the mistake of buying yellow mustard for us at home, something my French husband found deeply offensive. Haunted by his disgusted expression, I’ve avoided buying it since. Until the other day, when only a few plastic bottles of yellow mustard remained on the otherwise empty shelves of our grocery store’s usually impressive mustard section.
At first, I thought it might have just been a problem at that one grocery store. Maybe, for some reason, someone had forgotten to restock the mustard. But trips to other grocery stores confirmed my suspicions that there was more to it than that.
It turns out that both climate change and the war in Ukraine are responsible for the mustard shortage. The unusually hot weather and wildfires that plagued Canada last summer meant less mustard was harvested and exported to France. France also can’t get mustard from two other typically reliable sources, Russia and the Ukraine.
You might be wondering about the mustard that’s actually produced in France, what with there being Dijon mustard and all. According to this report, France is responsible for about 50% of its own mustard supply (although none of it is produced in Dijon anymore)- but climate issues, legislation around insecticide use, and other problems have reduced the usual harvest by half, and previous years’ bad harvests mean the supply was already low.
The current strategy is to try not to panic. No one wants to cause a riot or a rush on remaining mustard jars, after all. But every time I’m in a grocery store, I come upon someone lingering, eyes glazed, staring in despair at the empty shelves in front of them. There are ways to replace certain tastes and textures, but mustard is pretty tricky.
It makes me think of one of my favorite cartoons from the Siege. This one addresses the cheese shortage,a food shortage that didn’t cause nearly as much uproar as the meat or flour shortages, but still made people long for better times.
In the cartoon, two pretty, young women stare at a pockmarked old man. One says to the other, “Nowadays I love pockmarked people. They remind me of Gruyère (Swiss) cheese!”
This 2022 tweet/cartoon by Chaunu is a present-day counterpart:
It’s funny how things are — we have plenty of Gruyère (at least for now…), and from what I can tell, Parisians during the Siege had enough mustard. It’s even a suggested seasoning for horse meat in La Cuisinière Assiégée ou L’Art de Vivre en Temps de Siège, a book of recipes from the Siege (You can read it for free here).
In a way, living through this mustard shortage has helped me understand what food scarcity was like during the Siege. For a while, I’ve been a bit taken aback by contradictory contemporary evidence about that cheese shortage, for instance. We have the Cham cartoon, and I’ve read several other accounts of life without cheese during the Siege.
But then you look at something like the famous 1870 Christmas menu from the upscale Café Voisin. Among things you’d expect, like elephant consommé, cat, and rat, is cheese for dessert.
Now, as I experience the mustard shortage, it’s a bit easier to understand. You can still find mustard here, left over in people’s pantries, or previously bought in bulk by restaurants. It’s just that it’s hard for most of us to get. Cheese seems a little more surprising to me — after all, how long could it hold up, especially in a world before refrigeration? But hard cheeses like Gruyère can be preserved for months if wrapped properly in cheesecloth. The fact that the weather was unusually cold in the fall and winter of 1870–1871 may have helped, too.
Another unexpected effect of the mustard shortage is my family’s discovery of “Mustar”.
The other day at a different neighborhood grocery store, my son and I came upon a suspiciously well-stocked promotional shelf of something that we read as “Mustar”. It looked closer to yellow mustard than Dijon mustard, but maybe, just maybe, in these trying times, it might pass muster? So, I bought a bottle.
My husband was both delighted and suspicious about the name — English, or English-inspired (real French mustard would be called moutarde) and dubiously incomplete at that. But in desperation, he tried it.
A closer look at the jar made me realize that “Mustar” was actually “Muştar”, which it turns out is just the Romanian word for “mustard.” This particular muştar is a slightly spicy version of yellow mustard with, to me at least, a relish-y aftertaste. I’m not a mustard fan, as I’ve said, but Muştar would be amazing on a sandwich, I think. My husband, on the other hand, carefully swallowed his taste of Muştar and didn’t say anything. Under normal circumstances, he probably wouldn’t go near it again. But for now, Muştar and a dwindling supply of mustard packets gleaned from bygone days when fast food restaurants would shower customers with them, are all we have.
The scarcity of certain foods during the Siege of Paris led to some…interesting alternatives, including bread made with ingredients so vile that it became an emblematic souvenir of the period. With the mustard (and, probably, soon, Muştar) shortage set to last for a while in France, it will be interesting to see if anything will be proposed as a substitute for this beloved condiment.
On an equally interesting, but more sobering note, I wonder how restaurants will have to adapt their menus or condiment offerings.
Once we’ve finished its contents, maybe we’ll hold onto our Muştar jar. Maybe one day it could be sold as a souvenir of France’s Great Mustard Shortage of 2022.
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