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How Kitty Keller Got into the Mustard Business

A KL Keller Adventure

on Thursday, 22 June 2017. Posted in Import Chronicles

How Kitty Keller Got into the Mustard Business

KL Keller Foodways makes five delicious proprietary mustards. We craft them using fine American mustard and elegant European ingredients, which gives them that specific taste perspective on how we see the world.

We've been developing some all-American mustard-based recipes perfect for summer barbecues. Now, as Kitty Keller tells the story of how these mustards came to be, we share the recipes with you.


kl keller banyuls vinegar mustard

Get the recipe: Banyuls Vinaigrette and Roasted Asparagus Salad ➤ 

that's bananas!

It was 1997, and the USA got into a fight with France. kl keller banyuls vinegar mustard 1The French lifted quotas on bananas from the Caribbean, which undermined our South American prices. In return, we instituted a 100% duty on French "luxury" items like cheeses—for six years you couldn't get a Roquefort to save your life—and, yes, French mustard. They got pissed off and imposed a duty on American beef, and around and around we go.

Now, I had longed for some mustard made with Vinaigre de BanyulsVinegar of Banyuls is an elixir to me. I just love it. It’s the best thing that’s ever been made. But I couldn’t get a Banyuls Mustard out of Europe because it had a 100% duty on it. When you put a 10% duty on the base of something, it’s astronomical, but 100%? So we were out of the mustard business. Then I had an epiphany. “I know! We’re going to make it here!”

the blowoff

I start calling people and getting blown off because, you know, what I want is a private recipe, done with a certain ingredient, and in small quantities. And most folks in the mustard business—not all, but many of them—what they do is order a drum of mustard from somebody, drop it in a 50-gallon food grade barrel, throw some Sriracha in the top, drop an immersion blender in and—bidabang, biddaboom!—they have Sriracha mustard. That was way too simple for me.

the insider tip

So I wind up talking my pal Barry Levinson, the curator at the National Mustard Museum—yes, there is one! Barry, an ex-public defender in Wisconsin, developed an unruly passion for mustard and never looked back. He even did amustard monopoly kl keller Mustard Monopoly Board featuring KL Keller (pictured). I tell him my pitiful story. And he says, “Call these folks I know in the Northwest”.  Once you leave Seattle and Portland and go east, it’s all plains; it's just like Oklahoma, and a great place to grow mustard seed.

I call them and wind up talking to their food scientist, a guy by the name of Mike. “So, can you make me some Vinegar of Banyuls Mustard?”. He says, “Uh, I think so!” I ask, “What are your minimums?” “Oh, one batch—about 25 gallons.” Which is still about three or four hundred pounds. I gulp and squeak, “Okay, well, let me send you up some vinegar”. He asks, “Can we use a different vinegar instead?” I regain myself: “No, you have to use ours!” “Well, it’s gonna be expensive.” “I don’t care, I want a perfect product.”

the glory

So we send him the vinegar, and he sends us back a mustard that is—ahhh!not whole grain and not Dijon-style, but a mix, with kind of broken mustard seeds and a blend of white and brown mustard, and it is fabulous. The sweetness, the residual fruit in the vinegar of Banyulsjust carries it, with just the right amount of salt. It is stunning, and I was never so excited.


kl keller dijon mustard

 Get the recipe: Real French Vinaigrette ➤ 

kl keller dijon mustard 1As I'm tasting it, I’m standing in a crummy little kitchen in the vast, dark warehouse where our old offices were. It was freezing in the winter, and in the kl keller cold hotsummer it would get so hot, we'd run down to the local Cash & Carry and cool off in the giant walk-in. It was summer, so I might have been a little lightheaded, and I think, “Gosh, if we have one mustard, we have to have two. Two SKUS sell better than one.” So I call Mike up and say "Um . . . do you have a Dijon?” They send me three. Only problem is: they're awful. There I am in the sad little kitchen, spitting mustard out into the sink—ptooey!—thinking “uh-oh”. But we still had some mustard that we’d imported from France, from a small producer now owned by a huge company. So I send a jar up to Mike: “Make this”.

the magic touch

And, like in a fairytale, he again sends me three different samples. Number Two is 673px Fairy With Wand.svgfantastic. "That’s the one I want!” “Well," he asks, "Can we sell this recipe to other people?” because we’d signed a non-compete. I say no. “Can we use it for our house brand then?” and I think, "Hm, then it'll be around and we can get it easilysure!"

The Dijon I liked had a really high percentage of mustard seed, somewhere between 25% and 28%—Mike won’t actually give me the recipe, and nor should he, but to give you a sense of it, typical grocery store brands are 11% mustard seed. It’s all filler and water after that. Ours is true mustard. Several customers proclaim it—with my total agreement—the best Dijon they've ever tasted.

the little french secret

You know why there’s no AOC or AOP on Dijon mustard? shhhThere is very little mustard seed grown in Dijon anymore; it’s all wine. Canada is actually the biggest supplier of "French" mustard seed. So all this mustard starts in Canada, gets shipped to France, and comes back to the USA—with H20 and additives, thank you very much. There’s maybe only one tiny producer in Dijon, with only 10 or 15 acres, who crafts a product that can be labelled: “Made with French mustard”.


kl keller black truffle mustard

Get the recipe: Roast Beef Pinwheels with Black Truffle Mustard ➤ 

kl keller black truffle mustard 1We're making our KL KellerTruffle Salt one day. I'm standing there in our warehouse kitchen with Sandy Sonnenfelt, my product developer—she in her kl keller truffle hotness scale 1pink hair, chef whites and clogs, I in my T-shirt, jeans and sneakers—surrounded by all these heavenly truffle pieces and truffle aroma and porcini powder. All of a sudden, high on truffle aroma, I say, "Let’s get a gallon of the Dijon and make Truffle Mustard! Truffles are hot!" Sandy gives me a look. I concede, "I mean, they’ve been hot for centuries." But she was game. In about an hour—because we had such fantastic base ingredients—we put it together. It’s become one of our biggest sellers, and part of the reason is that delicious Dijon base.


kl keller espelette pepper mustard

Get the recipe: Grilled Moroccan Sausage with Espelette Mustard Yogurt ➤ 

kl keller espelette pepper mustard 1I adore piment d'espelette. I love its sweet, food-friendly heat and the fact that it won't rip your head off, unlike some other peppers. It's nuanced. So—you know what's coming—we decide to develop an espelette mustard. 

did we jump the gun?

kl keller heartOnce again, these are all private recipes. You need to soak the mustard seeds to do these things. And we have private blends of the amount of yellow or brown mustard we have in it—and mustard flour, because it offers a taste component that we want. Then we add our fragrant, hand-harvested, designation-protected Piment  d'Espelette AOP from a small family farm in the Basque region of France. Divine! We’re probably, to be frank, a little premature on this gorgeous product, because the espelette market is still maturing. C'est la vie.


kl keller violet mustard

 Get the recipe: Salmon Steaks with Violet Mustard Glaze ➤ 

Our last mustard—thus far—is a violet mustard (the color, not the flower!). And it's totally a departure from my usual food interests. One of our big customers asked us if we have the Moutarde de Violette de Brive. It’s a specific mustard from a region called Limoges—what you and I think of for fine china—made with grape must. Though, frankly, the wine I’ve had from there is, at best, undistinguished.

a purple potion

kl keller violet mustard 450x600 1 What they would do in Brive is take their grape kl keller cowjuice before they fermented it, make mustard with it, and serve it with boiled meats. Because in the old days, they ate lots of boiled meats—pot au feu, that seems so exotic to us, was a necessity since Mrs. Cow was a little tough. And they’d put it against boudin noir—blood sausage—because, ahh, the sweet against the iron-y flavor.

oh must you, darling?

So I thought, fine, I’ve got this friend, a tech refugee and urban winemaker in the warehouse district in Oakland; he can make me some grape must. I was impractical until the cows come home—and they still haven't come home. So I go to this guy and I say, “Hey, sweetie, can you make me some grape must?” “Yeah, what are you gonna use it for?” When I tell him, he says "I’d be happy to do this . . . or you could do what we all do in the wine business." Which is: buy it already done and conditioned from a concern over in the Central Valley.

la balance

Now, the benefit of this is that it has already been purified. They have to super-filter the must, to pull out all of the yeast, mold and bacteria. It would have been really expensive for my friend to do, but these guys already do it in huge volume. And the other thing is, if a winery does it, the brix—the sugar level—would probably go up and down. The steadier your brix is, kl keller balanced tastethe more scientific and steady your wine can be. So we find this fabulous purified product, ready to go. It’s a concentrate of California Cabernet grape must and it is beyond my wildest expectations of what the quality could be. I send it up to Mike, and we go through several development stages. The violet mustard was a challenge, because it has spices in it, and getting those in the right balance with the grape must was a lot more work than with any of our other products. But we did, and it's superb.

And that's how I got into the mustard business!

—Kitty Keller

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    Oakland, CA 94618

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