I am not quite as nuts about mustard as the man I recently saw eating Gulden's straight out of the jar at Santa Monica's Broadway Deli (the bus boy retired the jar after the man left). But it's almost impossible for me to pass the mustard shelf in a market of any size or ethnicity without finding something to take home. At one point, more than 40 jars and bottles littered our refrigerator, and a dozen more sat in our cupboards, waiting to be opened.
The truth is, I think not just hot dogs but most grilled, baked or roasted meat can be improved by a hefty dollop of mustard. Especially turkey, which I believe is best complemented by Mama Rap's Garlic Mustard from Rapazzini in Gilroy, Calif., the world capital of garlic. Even if the name and graphics are amateurish, it's wildly garlicky and has the added benefit, for diet-conscious consumers, of containing no salt. (You can order Mama Rap's, at $3 for 7 1/2 ounces, by telephoning (408) 842-5649.)
This time of year the issue on the table is ham, and I went across town to delis and markets in search of mustards that would go well with this traditional dish. Broadway Deli has a very good array of mustards for sale, and I asked David Waldbaum, the market manager and buyer, about them.
Waldbaum, a native Parisian, naturally favors French mustards. He pointed out the six flavored varieties of mustard made by Paul Corcellet who, Waldbaum said, was the first epicier in Paris to add spices to vinegar, mustard and oil with success. Waldbaum recommended Corcellet's Horseradish and his Tarragon ($4.25 and $4.50, respectively, for 7 1/2-ounce jars). I took them, as well as Gaetano Barteau's Mustard with Tarragon ($2.25 for 7 ounces) to compare with the Corcellet.
Waldbaum also said that Parisians love Pommery mustard. I thought he meant Moutarde de Meaux, which comes in a well-known crock. No, Waldbaum said. Not the plain Pommery. Parisians go for the Moutarde des Pompiers, in a red crock, which the label helpfully translates as "Firemen's Mustard."
I had always been put off by the promotional copy on the label, which mentions that the manufacturers "had their eye on the New World" when they produced a "hot" mustard. Who needed a mustard concocted by the French for what they imagined American tastes for spicy?
Waldbaum disabused me of that notion: Parisians, he said, love Moutarde des Pompiers for slathering on street food, on sausages and pommes frites. So I bought one of those $7.95, 9-ounce red crocks.
Finally, I wondered which, among the five "standard" Dijons he had on his shelves, he thought was best. He recommended Maille's Dijon, at $7.75 for a 16-ounce crock.
I went on from there to pick up five other mustards at various markets--Metheny's Horseradish Mustard ($2.49, 9 ounces); Boar's Head Delicatessen Mustard ($2.29, 9 ounces); Zatarain's Creole Mustard ($1.09, 5 1/4 ounces); Honeycup Beer Mustard ($3.59, 8 ounces); and Sebastiani Cabernet Mustard ($2.79, 6 1/2 ounces).
Since I'm such a pushover for mustards, I took the brown bag of mustards down to The Times, where volunteers from the Food staff put together an informal tasting, with a loaf of bread and a large baked ham.
Tasting conjures up perhaps too formal an image, since most of the tasters hadn't had lunch. Nine people tore into the ham, being very careful, however, to put 10 blobs of mustard on their paper plates, so they could mark sheets of paper with the names of the mustards. (Let wine snobs have their blind tastings.)
The Maille Dijon was recognized as a "solid Dijon," but some noticed a "bitter" flavor that put them off. Most of the tasters felt that a little tarragon goes a very long way, and while the Corcellet version was thought superior to the Barteau ("too salty"), none were ready to make it their mustard of choice for Easter.
There was a split in the two versions with horseradish. Most people agreed that Corcellet's mustard was more subtle, its flavors more interestingly balanced, but that wasn't what carried the day. When people eat horseradish, they want a kick, so Metheny's, with more "bite," got a narrow nod.
The Honeycup Beer Mustard had few fans. It was admired for being gentle and sweet, but some noticed a bitter aftertaste. The tasters were widely split on the Sebastiani. One thought it the best of the lot, but others found it "too sweet," its flavors "contrived." And the Pommery Fireman's, while recognized for being hot, didn't seem to have any interest beyond the intensity of the heat, although one can reflect on the sociological meaning of Parisians putting this incendiary stuff on their potatoes.
Zatarain's Creole, on the other hand, while hot, was admired not only for the "sneakiness" of its heat but for its balance of spices. It was ranked number one by four tasters.
The Boar's Head was the other highly ranked mustard. One person, calling it the "best," said approvingly that it "tastes like mustard." Another called it "my favorite deli mustard."
With ham, then, look for Zatarain's or Boar's Head, although you can always fall back on that stand-by, Gulden's Spicy Brown, which has the added attraction of being available not only in these namby-pamby 7-ounce containers, but at Smart & Final Iris in 1-gallon, 8-pound jars, for around $4.85. Need I confess that one such giant jar takes up much of the top shelf in our refrigerator?