The National Mustard Museum, located in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, claims to house the world’s largest collection of mustards and mustard memorabilia.
The claim comes from a former Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General, founder, and curator, Barry Levenson, who opened the museum in 1992. He’s not perjuring himself when he cites that the museum is home to over 6,000 plus mustards coming 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, and wasabi — and buy some to take home. There are also recipes for cooking mustard from Mrs. Mustard’s Kitchen.
More than mustard theatre
Admission is free, and that includes the MustardPiece Theatre. It screens videos but can seem like a comedy club when Levenson is around to deliver comedic insults to catsup and claim mustard’s place as the King of Condiments.
On a serious note, when I was there he explained that mustard was taken as medicine before aspirin, and mustard plasters have been used by the British to soak away tension and fatigue. Strong mustard can increase metabolism.
Mustard goes back to the ancient Greeks, who chewed the seeds while eating meat, explained 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 major mustard centers.
Levenson is certainly a mustard aficionado but he’s not a snob. Asked whether there was any use for common American yellow mustard, he replied, “There’s a place for French’s — on a hot dog at a baseball game.”
Jalapeno mustard, he added, goes well with Bratwurst. (Sausage, as well as cheese and beer, are Wisconsin staples). What about refrigerating opened jars of mustard? It’s a good idea, said Levenson, mainly to retain the flavor and sinus-clearing intensity. Of course, if the stuff looks moldy or tastes funny, throw it away.
A tasting at the Mustard Museum
Most visitors are drawn to the mustard samples spread on crackers or freshly made soft pretzels. It’s a chance to try a variety of mustard you might hesitate 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, Slimm and Nunne. Another popular mustard is Dill and Garlic Mustard by Norman Bishop.
In the display area 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.
Every year mustard makers from around the world enter their wares in the museum’s World-Wide Mustard Competition. A panel of chefs, food writers, and other food professionals choose mustards from 17 categories including American Yellow, Classic Dijon, Honey, and Horseradish/Wasabi.
From the gold medal winners, one mustard is chosen as the Grand Champion. In 2021, it went to Bornier Wholegrain Dijon Mustard. The two-hundred-year-old company got its name from French mustard master Denis Bornier, and the factory is located a few kilometers from Dijon.
Another event is the annual mustard festival, hosted in Madison every August with tastings, games and music.
Madison beyond the mustard
Of course, you don’t have to wait for a special occasion to experience Madison’s other attractions. This medium-sized, walkable city is dominated by the impressive, domed Capitol Building on an isthmus of land between two lakes.
Visitors come to gaze at the impressive marble and gold-trim décor and murals, and tours are free. The grounds surrounding the building are home to a weekly farmer’s market.
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 student casual to fine dining.
On Capitol Square, The Cooper’s Tavern serves elevated pub food. Try the battered cheese curds, 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 of history. Located in an old Railway Depot, it is run by the power couple Shaina Robbins Papich, 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 Napa Valley.
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, deviled eggs with trout roe 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 citrus drink.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Learning about the history of mustard at the Mustard Museum will be appetizing to culinary travelers.
- Madison has food tours, fine hotels and restaurants, and Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. For forty years Wright lived and worked at the Taliesin estate, 37 miles north of Madison.
- Madison is flat with plenty of bike trails and surrounded by lakes. The best bike trails are not surrounded by cars, but on designed, tree-lined roads.
All photo credits: Jacqueline Swartz (unless otherwise noted); lead photo Adobe stock
Disclosure: The author’s trip to Madison was sponsored by Destination Madison as part of a post-trip after the SATW conference in Milwaukee; entrance to the Mustard Museum is always free.
Masks are required indoors. For updated information on infection, hospitalization, and vaccination rates, see the Madison and Dane County Public Health website.
IF YOU GO
For more information about the Mustard Museum and Madison, see Visit Madison.
Save to Pinterest!!