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The energy of three generations of mustard makers

In 2018, the first Trends Family Business Awards were organised.  In order to discover the Walloon family business of the year who was granted this award, we have to travel to the lost parts of the country, to the middle of the bucolic meadows of Raeren.

Last exit before the border on the motorway towards Aachen.  Take the N68 towards Raeren through Eynatten.  A sign indicates that the rue of Eynatten is cut by roadworks before Raeren.  Ignoring the alternate route, I chose to drive straight ahead, in doing so, followed a big truck who seemed to know where he’s going.  When he suddenly stopped, I did too of course.  And it’s at that specific moment, as I stepped out of my car, that I could sense mustard up my nose…

Emerging from a white building are emanations that delightfully tickle your nasals. A bouquet of spices that bring an oriental feeling to the flourishing countryside.  So, here are the headquarters and production site of the “Conserverie et Moutarderie Belge” , the last mustard maker of the Liege Province.  A gallery on the roof is both the management office and the meeting room.  That’s where I meet Rachel Renson, in charge of Marketing and Communications since 2017.  Her two brothers, Laurent and Raphaël, however, joined the company already in 2010.  One of them is in charge of production and staff management, the other manages sales and administration.  A young generation that creates modern flavours but stays linked to the product created by their grand-parents and the enterprise developed by their parents. “We’ll always make our Filou”, says Rachel.

Do not be mistaken: this Filou (Rascal) is not the strong blonde beer launched by the Van Honsebrouck Brewery from Ingelmunster in 2014, but the mild mustard created by Franz and Maria Schumacher who founded the New Belgian Mustardry in 1953.  Originally, the Filou was called Gloria. But a similar product existed with the same name in Germany, and in order to be exported, Franz Schumacher changed his brand name in the 1960s.  The brand name Filou is still very popular in the area. It also includes today, among other things, a range of sauces meant for Belgian fries stalls.  You might have licked your fingers full of these sauces more than once without even knowing it…

“In order to make mustard, you need very few things: mustard grains, vinegar, water, salt and spices such as turmeric for its yellow colour” explains Rachel Renson. “The grains are ground under very heavy stone wheels.  Water is essential to avoid burning the grains by friction.” The mixture goes through various stages of mixing, like in this big tub where the plunger turns at 2.200 rpm, liberating fumes that bring tears to your eyes. “And yet, this is the mild mustard” laughs Rachel.

Actually, how do we make spicy mustard, the famous Dijon mustard (which, by the way, is not a protected origin designation, but a preparation method)?  “The difference is that for mild mustard we use the full grain, whereas for Dijon mustard, a specific process separates the core from the bran, the grain’s protective envelope.  And this give a spicier result.” Today, the enterprise also offers over a dozen and a half of flavoured mustards: with dill, figs, honey, orange, truffles…

Because the wheel of life turns and, even by remaining in the family, a business needs to diversify.  Franz and Maria had seven daughters, of which the youngest, as required by Belgian tradition, is the Queen’s Goddaughter.  At the time, it was Fabiola.  One of the girls, Elvira, takes over the enterprise with her husband Philippe Renson in 1983.  The family enterprise expands its range of products with emulsified sauces (mayo, tartar, bearnaise, Andalusian), warm sauces and ready-made meals, such as vol-au-vent and meatballs, for which  impeccable conservation is guaranteed by the passage through a highly sophisticated autoclave.  The social reason becomes the “Conserverie et Moutarderie Belge”.

From the end of the 70s to the beginning of our century, our eating habits have been influenced by the grand distribution development.  Philippe Renson, the Director, includes this family business in this trend, by producing for distribution brands.  The purpose of this approach is double: on one hand, it allows to make sure that the tool is kept busy and the dozen collaborators, who are also family members, are part of the business. On the other hand, it imposes high levels of food quality control, including the BRC Food International certification, the global standard for food safety. To dress up with a dust cover, to wear a hair cap and to disinfect hands before being allowed to enter the workshop maybe lack a bit of quaintness (then again), but it is reassuring.

The Raeren enterprise does not simply stick a different sticker on a small group of products. Flexibility is one of its strengths.  Take one of these salad dressing bottles that evolve on a small chain. You may notice the oil swimming above the other ingredients.  It is one of the requirements from the distributing client that wants its consumers to be able to mix the bottle themselves to homogenise the mixture. Laurent Renson, responsible for production, has found the solution, but how can we manage some 200 different products and rapidly add new ones?  The enterprise is equipped with an experimental kitchen with Thermomixes just like in restaurants.  The culinary advisor goes there to fine tune the recipe. It is “only” then necessary to extrapolate for slightly bigger mixers afterwards…

Actually, here is a recent gourmet creation that has received an innovation award at the SIAL, Paris International Food Show, in 2018.  The Spreads are made from corn grains and vegetables and/or fruits.  They slather over appetiser toasts, can be used as a base in jars or in a sandwich, and deliciously serve as dips with crunchy vegetables.  These delights are certified both organic and vegan. The Spreads are offered under two brands of the company: La Délicieuse (the delicious), distributed in delis, and La Vache qui Regarde Passer les Trains (the cow that watches trains go by), that covers an exclusively organic range of products.  And the Certisys organic certification, believe me, is no joke.

When Rachel presents to me a third brand, I’m stunned.  I know it all too well.  It’s stands with pretty bottles to pull out are very present in middle sized stores (where they actually sell rapidly on barbecue friendly week-ends).  But I never realised that “Jefke” The Belgian Chef had his kitchens in Raeren, in the Eastern Cantons…

For my personal tasting, I made grilled sweet potato toasts with a base of aubergine spread from “the cow” and La Delicieuse chives salad dressing dips, berry mayonnaise and  “Jefke” bearnaise sauce.

The Belgian “Conserverie and Moutarderie Belge” concentrates on its role of creation and production of products for the mouth.  It does not organize visits and does not have on-site stores but it does participate in Shows such as “C’est Bon, C’est Wallon” (it’s good, it’s from Wallonia).

A more touristic and gastronomic vision of mustard? It’s in Monjoie!

Text and photographs: Germaine Fanchamps

Translation: Andrea Johnson-Ferguson

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