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For the love of mustard: Hoarding and cheating as French grapple with nationwide shortage

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Since last spring, France has been hit by an unprecedented crisis: a nationwide shortage of mustard. The lack of the country’s favourite condiment has sent many of the French into a state of almost wild panic, with some going as far as to hoard and to cheat to secure their stock of their beloved “moutarde”.

At the end of May, Pierre Grandgirard, the owner and head-chef of the La Régate restaurant in Brittany headed out on his regular morning supply run when he ran into an unusual problem: he couldn’t get his hands on mustard.

“I went everywhere, but they were all out,” he explained. To make matters worse, some shopkeepers told him astonishing tales of hoarding. “That a papy [French slang for granddad, eds. note] had come in and filled his shopping carrier with 10 or more pots in one go.”

For Grandgirard, whose restaurant specialises in seafood platters and whose lunch menu also includes the traditional steak frites salade, the problem was real.

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“We make our own mayonnaise and vinaigrette, and people like to have mustard with their steaks,” he said.

Finally, Grandgirard managed to find a place that still had some in stock thanks to a newly introduced “one-pot-per-person” policy. The staff empathised with the desperate chef and let him get away with two.

But Grandgirard, whose restaurant goes through an average of 5 kilograms of mustard per month, knew the pots wouldn’t last him long, and posted a public appeal on Facebook, begging people to please stop hoarding the condiment.

French chef Grandgirard in May posted an appeal on Facebook asking people to stop hoarding mustard. His post generated a massive response, with people sending him dozens of pots of mustard to keep him and his restaurant afloat. The post has since been taken down. © Facebook

The response was massive, at least in terms of donations. “People called me from everywhere, from all over Europe, and offered to send me mustard.” In all, Grandgirard said he received between 35 and 40 pots – supplies that kept him afloat until mid-July, when a fresh French mustard-seed harvest took the edge off the worst of the current crisis.

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A story of love, war and climate change

The French mustard crisis can largely be explained by a combination of three factors: climate change, the war in Ukraine and the extreme love the French have for the tangy condiment. 

Although France used to be a major producer of the brown-grain mustard seed known as Brassica Juncea and which is the base for Dijon mustard, that cultivation has since moved to Canada, which now accounts for as much as 80 percent of the French supply. Last year’s climate-change-blamed heatwave over Alberta and Saskatchewan, however, slashed that production in almost half, leaving France’s top mustard brands – Unilever-owned Amora and Maille – scrambling for the precious seeds.

On top of that, a milder-than-usual winter resulted in many French mustard fields becoming the victim of insects, and thus much smaller harvests.

The war in Ukraine has impacted the global mustard market too, but the way it has affected the French market is rather surprising, and is chiefly due to the mustard consumption habits of other European countries.

Although both Russia and Ukraine are big mustard-seed producers, they mainly cultivate the much milder, yellow mustard seed – a variety that is typically shunned by the French, but hugely popular in eastern and central European countries.

Since the war has halted much of the Ukrainian and Russian exports, yellow mustard-seed fans have had to turn to other types of mustards, including the much-loved French Dijon mustard, and thereby upping the demand for it.

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But the main reason why France has become such a victim of the mustard shortage, according to Luc Vandermaesen, the president of industry group Mustard of Burgundy, is because the French are simply enormous mustard consumers.

“Every French person consumes an average of 1 kilogram of mustard per year,” he told French daily Le Figaro in an interview earlier this summer. “Sales are much weaker in our neighbour countries, and so their stocks last longer. That’s why you can find products abroad that were produced in France a long time ago.”

‘Bring me mustard!’

The French have reacted to the shortage with shock, anger, and in some cases, even desperation. Since the onset of the crisis, Twitter has been inundated with French users posting photos of empty Dijon mustard shelves in supermarkets, and at least one consumer who was lucky enough to have scored a pot, joked that she was going to sell off her rare find to the highest bidder.

Aside from the many reports of hoarding, there have also been some instances of cheating to get around the pot caps that have been installed in a number of French supermarkets. As reported by the Washington Post at the end of July, one scandalised French consumer even turned to TikTok to vent her anger after she learned that someone had circumvented the one-pot-per-person-rule in a local shop by checking out with two different sales clerks.

A FRANCE 24 journalist, who said she loves Dijon mustard to the point that she eats it on bread “like butter or jam”, recounted how, at the height of the crisis, her mother had gifted her a pot of the condiment. “In wrapping paper.”

The shortage has also been the fodder for conspiracy theories, with some people theorising that the larger supermarket chains have purposely kept the yellow gold off their shelves in order to hike their prices.

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The internet has become a growing forum for creative ways to replace the condiment in traditional French staples, like mayonnaise, with things like vinegar, wasabi and Worcestershire sauce.

Other French consumers have simply resorted to importing their all-important Dijon via friends.

Forty-three-year-old Julien Geyler from the Parisian suburb of Rueil-Malmaison received such an order when he and his family were returning from their annual summer holidays in Spain at the end of July.

“We always make a stop at my friend’s parents place on our way home, so I sent them the usual ‘what can I bring’ message in case they wanted something from Spain, like olive oil or Spanish ham.”

But not this time. “They just replied: ‘Mustard!’ No ‘hello’ or ‘we’re looking forward to seeing you’ or anything, just ‘mustard!’ and ‘strong mustard!’,” he laughed as he recounted his hunt for Dijon mustard in southern Europe.

An end in sight?

After rain comes sunshine, as they say. Following last year’s depressing harvests in both France and Canada, the recent French harvests have been described as exceptionally good, and Canadian mustard-seed cultivators are looking to more than double their output this year, to 115,000 tons from 50,000 tons in 2021. Most experts predict a definite end to the French mustard shortage at the end of this year.

Chef Grandgirard said he has already started to feel the impact, and no longer needs to rely on donations to be able to whip up a real mayonnaise for his guests.

“Our suppliers have been able to restock us again,” he confirmed, but noted it was not without a big sigh of relief.

“France without mustard is like France without wine,” he said.

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