Our owner Julia approached me this summer about a work trip to Koln and Vienna; because of our status in the industry, Formaggio Kitchen would be sponsored to attend trade shows. “And,” she said, “I’m sending you to meet Frank.”
Frank Peisert is the owner of Schwerter Senfmuhle, the beloved mustard brand from North Rhine-Westphalia that we exclusively import to the States. We’d reached an impasse in our importation; might a meeting straighten things out?
We’d had an order waiting in the cool, mustard-hued rooms of the mill since January. First, Schwerter Senfmuhle had the blow of a botched delivery— bearing the tremendous cost of getting our shipment returned to sender after crossing country lines. Then, Formaggio Kitchen had its first FDA inspection under new ownership; our lead importers have been slogging through paperwork and new regulations ever since. And then, Schwerter restructured their company—time for an updated FDA registration, which Formaggio Kitchen handles as their agent.
While in Koln, how far away would I be? Turns out, the city of Schwerte, home to about 50,000, is an hour and change on the Deutsche Bahn. If I heard from him in time, I could arrange something for that one free afternoon between trade shows. And so I did.
On Friday, October 6, I woke up at 5:45 am in Vienna, got myself to Germany and through Koln’s public transit to my hotel by 12:30 pm. I dropped my bags and stopped for lunch a short stroll from the train station. After days of Vienna sausage and schnitzel, I wanted a salad. The train to Schwerte departs once an hour — I’d take the 14:20. Or so I thought.
The brauhaus had taken the advertised salad off the menu. Pork knuckle instead. But by 1:45, I still hadn’t gotten the hulking crispy meat that I’d seen drop at every other table. I asked for the check and a box for the food. Both of which arrived after some delay. Didn’t they understand I needed to see the mustard man?
I dashed to Koln Central station and up to the platform. Signs read: 50 minute delay. Then longer. Eventually, I dropped to the ground, like so many other travelers, and ate pork knuckle. Welcome to Koln. By 15:30, the next train arrived (so long, 14:20 train) and two hours worth of waiting travelers got on — to a train car without air conditioning.
For the next hour and a half, I squirmed and looked at the other passengers — is no one else this warm? By 45 minutes in, yes, they were. I tried to distract myself by connecting with the team in Cambridge. My eyes flickered shut. Would I miss the Schwerte stop in a sweltering fugue?
I made it out, my cheeks burning and my hair askew. But all that was forgotten moments later, when I saw a man in a Schwerter Senfmuhle t-shirt in a classic car.
Three thousand, five hundred and eighty miles from home, I toured the mill and learned more about their business. We signed FDA attestations and exchanged company mugs. I made a plan to get their order before Christmas—please, before Christmas— and bought myself a few jars to tide myself over until then. It took all my willpower not to get one of every flavor. We checked our watches, and the once-an-hour train was almost in town. By the time I got to the train station, I realized we’d hadn’t gotten a photo together. The best I could send back was a photo, from the train platform, of the mustard in hand. And digital copies of all of the paperwork, lest they get too crumpled on the voyage home.
More on Schwerter Senfmuhle
Schwerter Senfmuhle is nearly a one-man operation. Frank has a few assistants, and his daughter Faina, is occasionally conscripted to help. When I met Faina, she joked that she might inherit the company someday.
The mustard company has been in business since 1845, but it wasn’t a Peisert family operation, but rather, the Adrians. In 1999, Wilheim Adrian finally put Schwerte’s mill to rest, unable to find a family member to continue the legacy. Frank Peisert had graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, and his mother suggested he take over the mustard mill to find a career. More than two decades later, he’s still here.
They sell to about 250 shops, restaurants, bars, butchers, mostly within about 40 km of their shop. They have a handful of clients overseas — Switzerland, UK — and they say that their mustard travels by word of mouth. In fact, that’s how Formaggio Kitchen learned of Schwerter — a proud German customer who wanted easier access to her favorite mustard.
Their stone mill, inherited from the Adrians, rotates 60 times a minute — far less than the commercial machinery that can pulverize mustard with 1000-2000 rotations a minute. That much friction heats up the mustard seed, and turns the mustard oil bitter and off. In turn, commercial mustards cover up the effects of heat with sugar and turmeric — but, Frank says, leave it in the sun and you’ll see that commercial mustard’s true color — grey.
Some mustard inclusions, like wine or honey, can be added in the grinding process; others, like herbs, are added after to maintain the texture and delicacy of the ingredient. Frank uses brown mustard seed for the hot varieties, and yellow mustard seed for mild ones.
Each barrel of mustard holds about 150-200L of mustard. Frank’s team makes about 50 tons of mustard a year — what the conglomerates can make in a day. He has a mechanical jar filler, but it still requires ladling the mustard into a funnel, and hand-labeling and closing each jar. He’s looking forward to getting a filling line quite soon. Even then, they’ll still have to put cloth on the jar lids by hand.
Frank experiences a lot of the same small business pains we do: shuttling product to and from an offsite warehouse, growing out of the space he’s in, paperwork that delays his output. He drives the forklift at his warehouse, hand-carries the boxes of mustard to his car to sell at the shop.
In this year of change and growth for Formaggio Kitchen, it was refreshing—validating, even—to see another business’ quotidian struggles, its current spot in a long history as a local fixture. Maybe it’s silly to get hopeful over some mustard, but we turned a stalemate into progress, and brought back our community’s favorite condiment again. The business relationships we have aren’t fueled by suits and boardroom negotiation. Just friendly faces who are willing to pick up a weary traveler at a train station because she’s excited to learn about mustard.