Mount Horeb museum masters mustards

What a spread it was.

In a corner were the fruity recipes – the tart, the sweet, the zesty. Another table was all herb/veggie combos – the dills, the onions, the garlic. Segregated elsewhere was one honey of a collection, literally.

This was an eclectic food sampling project, and this was just one part of three rounds. The buffet and the responsibility were of intimidating proportions.

Within four hours, I sampled at least 60 of the 300-plus products being judged by chefs, food critics, cookbook authors, food fanatics and average consumers.

All the fuss was about mustard, 15 categories of it. One of the least populated was yellow mustard – maybe it’s what you use the most, but the field sure has gotten a lot more competitive and complicated in other ways.

There are coarse grained mustards, jam-like spreads of tiny mustard seed balls that burst with flavor when bit. There are deli browns, classic hots and even spirit mustards – those made with some kind of booze, tequila to champagne.

One of the newer and more popular categories (with 29 entries) this year is all about salad dressings, marinades and barbecue sauces made with mustard.

The Mount Horeb Mustard Museum had them all, and all of these products are on the market somewhere in the world. This month about three dozen judges dipped and swizzled hundreds of pretzel sticks into this year’s entries in the Napa Valley Mustard Festival’s World-Wide Mustard Competition. It was a blind taste test, and the winners will be announced in mid-March in Sonoma, Calif.

The museum – in southwest Wisconsin – is an excellent match for the judging, which has been done here for about a dozen years (there were only 25 entries the first year).

Since 1986, museum owner Barry Levenson has devoted himself to collecting and advocating the condiment. He is an attorney whose specialty is food law issues. Both he and wife Patti have a funny, clever and savvy way of marketing their venture.

Want a souvenir that won’t be slathered onto your next platter of grilled meats? Consider the museum’s Poupon U collection of sweatshirts, baseball caps, pennants and other varsity-like merchandise.

The Levensons also have two versions of the “Poupon U Fight Song.” One is sung to the tune of “On Wisconsin” (“On our hot dogs, on our bratwursts, Mustard is so cool …”). The other is for Notre Dame fans.

Think there’s not enough to know about mustard to fill a museum? This place has more than 4,300 kinds – the world’s largest collection – from more than 60 countries.

Ready to diversify your condiment cabinet? More than 800 kinds of mustard products are for sale online; about 500 also are sold in the museum gift shop.

Aug. 6 will be National Mustard Day in Mount Horeb; it is an extraordinary family event that got the attention of the Food Network last year. Kids use mustard to make paintings. Culver’s mixes up a batch of Mustard Custard. There is Mustard Bowling, Mustard Ring Toss.

Oscar Mayer rolls in the Weinermobile and donates dawgs for everybody to eat. Just don’t ask for ketchup – that’s not appreciated here.

Last year, chef James Jens of the Old Feed Mill in nearby Mazomanie served his first Mustard Champions Dinner, multiple courses of gourmet fare, each matched or made with its own award-winning mustard from the 2004 Napa Valley festival. It was the final topping to National Mustard Day.

Olivier Cognac Mustard was the marinade for a duck breast entrée. Old Spice Gold Honey Mustard was mixed into almond ice cream for dessert.

For more about the Napa Valley festival, go to www.mustardfestival.org. For more about the museum, go to www.mustardmuseum.com or call (800) 438-6878.

Cheap (as in free) thrills include a museum newsletter that celebrates all types of oddities in and beyond the world of mustard. This month’s spotlight is on Elm Farm Ollie, “who made history 75 years ago when she became the first cow to fly in an airplane.”

What does that have to do with mustard? You – coincidentally! – can buy a Famous Cows gift box of three mustards that honor the animal. There also is a CD for sale: “The Bovine Cantata in B Flat Major” from “Moocini’s famous opera, ‘Madame Butterfat’.”

Near this community of 6,000 are vineyards, the Tyrol Basin ski area, Blue Mounds and Governor Dodge state parks, Cave of the Mounds and Little Norway. So mustard isn’t all that you need to have on your mind to make the trip.