Madison Wisconsin houses the world’s largest collection of mustards

 The National Mustard Museum, in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, claims to house the world’s largest collection of mustards and mustard memorabilia. Could this be true?  You have to believe it when it comes from  a former Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General, founder and curator, Barry Levenson. He’s not perjuring himself when he says the over 6,000 mustards come from all over North America and more than 80 countries.

In this fun and seriously informative place – the slogan is “Learn.Taste.Shop. Laugh!”  – visitors can learn about the history of mustard, sample endless varieties – with horseradish, walnut, honey, curry, wasabi – – and buy some to take home.

The Mustard Piece Theatre is a room with a screen and rows of chairs. It is often used to show videos, but can seem like a comedy club, with Levenson delivering his comedic insults to catsup and claiming mustard’s place as the King of Condiments. When I was there, he explained that mustard was used as a kind of medicine before aspirin, and mustard plasters have been used by the British to soak away tension and fatigue. Also, strong mustard can increase metabolism.

Mustard piece theatre with founder Barry Levenson entertaining and educating the audience

 Mustard goes back to the ancient Greeks who chewed the seeds while eating meat, noted Levenson. (Some reports say it goes back to the Stone Age) As a condiment, he added, it began in Dijon in the Middle Ages and spread to Germany and the UK, which remain two mustard centers.

Levenson is a mustard afficionado, but he’s not a snob. Asked whether there was any use for common American yellow mustard, Levenson replied, “There’s a place for French’s – on a hot dog at a baseball game”. Jalapeno mustard, he added, stands up to Bratwurst. (Sausage, as well as cheese, are common in Wisconsin).  Another pressing question was about refrigerating opened jars mustard. The answer is yes, but mainly to keep the flavor. Of course, if the stuff looks moldy or tastes funny, throw it away.

 Most visitors are drawn to the samples on crackers or freshly made soft pretzels.  It’s a chance to try a mustard you might be reluctant to buy – cranberry chardonnay, for instance. The biggest seller, according to the friendly people behind the counter, known as Confidential Condiment Counselors, is “Sweet and nicely hot”, by the US company, Slimme and Nunn. Another popular mustard is Dill and Garlic Mustard by Norman Bishop.

Tasting Bar at the museum

There is a collection of mustard pots, vintage ads and exhibits recounting mustard’s history and uses. One exhibit points out that the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta are the leading exporters of mustard seed in the western world.

Canada mustard display. Who would have thought that two of its provinces provide the world with mustard seed?

Mustard has made its mark on Madison. Here mustard makers from around the world enter their wares in the annual World-Wide Mustard Competition. This year, the panel of chefs, food writers and other food professionals chose mustards from 17 categories including American Yellow, Classic Dijon, Honey, and Horseradish/Wasabi.

 And every August, Madison hosts a mustard festival, with tastings, games and music.  

Madison beyond the mustard

View of the Madison Capitol building exterior from the lake

Of course, you don’t have to wait for a special occasion to see Madison’s attractions. The smallish, walkable city is dominated by an impressive, domed capital building. Visitors come to gaze at the impressive marble and gold-trim décor and murals, and tours are free. There are walking and bike paths and lake-side parks.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is at the top rung of public Universities.

Although Wisconsonites like to call themselves ‘cheese-heads’, that’s just mid-west self-deprecation. There is a growing restaurant scene that ranges from student casual to fine dining.  

From the Capitol, stroll down State Street Pedestrian Mall to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, at the top rung of public universities. Along the way, you’ll find a variety of eateries.Here and elsewhere in the city there’s a growing restaurant scene that ranges from studentcasual to fine dining.

On Capitol Square, The Cooper’s Tavern Serves elevated pub food. Try the battered cheesecurds, a Wisconsin specialty. And the roasted red pepper and tomato soup with blue cheese crumble. Wisconsin has long been known for its dairy, but the label “cheese heads” is Midwest self-deprecation now that cheese is becoming more and more artisanal. Down the street and surrounding the Capitol Building is a weekly farmer’s market. Nearby is
Fromagination, a destination cheese store. Opened last July is The Harvey House, a restaurant that combines fine dining with a hit ofhistory. Located in an old Railway Depot, it is run by the power couple Shaina RobbinsPapich, formerly of Chez Panisse, and Chef Joe Papich, who worked at stellar restaurants including the Grammercy Tavern in New York and French Laundry in California’s NapaValley. They’ve applied their skills in the service of some old-school dishes, using local produce,fish, and cheese. The relish tray, a staple of Midwest supper clubs, consists of sturgeon,deviled egg with trout roe, seasonal crudites, and pickles. Old-Fashioned duck is made with local cherries and roasted fennel with cognac jus. And like other restaurants, there is an Old-Fashioned on the drinks list. In Wisconsin, it is the unofficial state drink, traditionally made with brandy, maraschino cherries, and a fizzy citrusdrink.

All photo credits except lead photo by Jacqueline Swartz

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