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Climate change and war are felt everywhere — including the Dijon mustard industry

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

France is running low on one of the most important ingredients in the pantry and condiments on the table, mustard. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited the city of - where else? - Dijon to find out why.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Mustard has been made for centuries in this corner of Burgundy where wine and vinegar flow freely. But go into any grocery store, and the mustard shelves are bare. Nineteen-year-old cashier Auguste Mouleron at the Intermarche supermarket says he always gets the same question.

AUGUSTE MOULERON: Where's the mustard? And I don’t know why there is no more mustard. I think that’s because of Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: Ukraine is part of the reason. The war means France can't import the brown mustard seed crucial to making its Dijon mustard. But the main reason for the country's shortage was the heat dome over Canada last summer gutting the harvest of France's main supplier.

LUC VANDERMAESEN: For us, it was really dramatic because we could only get 50% of all requirements.

BEARDSLEY: That's Luc Vandermaesen, director general of mustard brand Reine de Dijon, Queen of Dijon, which has been making mustard here since 1840. He says France does not grow enough mustard seed to meet the needs of a population that consumes a whopping 1 kilogram - that's more than two pounds - of mustard per person per year. He says what's happening is unprecedented.

VANDERMAESEN: Since World War II, there is no shortage in food in Europe. I mean, we are used to find things. When we go to the supermarkets, the shelves are full.

BEARDSLEY: OK, so we're ready.

VANDERMAESEN: OK, let's look.

BEARDSLEY: At the mustard factory, we suit up in a lab jacket, hairnet and special shoes to go see how it's made.

It's very noisy.

There are giant steel vats, snaking metal tubes and temperature gauges. In another room, glass jars on a conveyor belt are filled with a golden paste before being capped and sealed.

And you can smell the mustard. Oh, you're eye - yeah. Your eyes get affected in here. You start tearing up, and you can smell it because Dijon mustard is very strong, hot mustard.

Vandermaesen says because of the mustard seed shortage, the factory is only running at two-thirds capacity. And strange, new mustard-like products are appearing on French grocery store shelves. Shopper Nathalie Boulon is reading a long list of ingredients on a so-called mustard from Poland. She says she's already tried it.

NATHALIE BOULON: It's not real mustard. It's a kind of sauce with sugar. No, it's not good, not very good.

BEARDSLEY: Mustard maker Vandermaesen says there are products being sold these days that don't actually qualify as mustard because of all the added ingredients.

VANDERMAESEN: In a good Dijon mustard, you have four ingredients. You have seeds, water, vinegar and salt. And that's it.

CHRISTIANE GOULETTE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Dijon native Christiane Goulette says she's down to her last drop of real mustard, which she says is key to a good vinaigrette salad, a staple of every French meal.

GOULETTE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I put a spoonful of Dijon mustard, a little vinegar and olive or sunflower oil," she says, "and salt and pepper. That's it."

Vandermaesen says French mustard makers will know in a few weeks if Canada's mustard seed harvest this year is a good one and whether there will be mustard on the shelves in France next year.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Dijon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.