WE HAVE come a long way from the stage in recorded history when handfuls of mustard seed were chewed with meat to impart some flavor. Indeed, appreciation of this spice has reached such a point of sophistication that there are those who suffer guilt twinges because they find trendy and grainy Pommery Moutarde de Meaux just doesn't make it on bologna and cheese sandwiches like Gulden's mustard does.

It may help assuage these pangs to know a little about mustard and how it is made. Then it is possible to match the mustard to the meal, much in the manner of choosing a special wine for a certain dish and thereby knocking the socks off any die-hard food snob.

If you have tried to decipher the differences among mustards by reading labels, you know it is of no use. The same four ingredients appear again and again, revealing no clues: mustard seeds, vinegar, salt and spices. Despite the similarity of ingredients, there is a vast range in quality and taste among mustards. This is a result of several variables among the basic ingredients: whether dark or yellow mustard seeds are used, what type of vinegar or other liquid is added and which spices are chosen. Formulas vary from producer to producer and are usually highly, guarded secrets. Depending on how these formulas are arranged, mustard can be sunny and mild, brown and spicy or superhot.

The word mustard probably stems from the Roman practice of mixing leftovers from the wine pressing (must) with seeds to make a paste.

When the Romans crossed over Gaul they deposited some mustard seeds in an area which was to become Burgundy. Now, however, some Burgundy mustards -- or more specifically the Dijon -- come from Canada and the United States.

"There is no city but Dijon; there is no mustard but Dijon," exclaim the ethnocentric Dijonnais. They take their mustard so seriously that the use of the name Dijon is controlled by law, similar to the appellation controlee in wine.

Today there are eight or nine mustard labels in Dijon, but all Dijon mustard is made essentially the same way. Black and brown seed is ground (no yellow is permitted) and mixed with salt, water and vinegar. The hulls are strained away and spices and wine are added. Verjuice, or unfermented grape juice, has been mostly replaced with white wine or white wine vinegar.

James Beard finds mustard one of the most versatile seasonings we have. Good mustard is essential to several dishes in French haute cuisine and may be used to enliven bland foods or sauces. For example, cold seafood and poached vegetables are enhanced by a mustard-and-lemon-scented mayonnaise.

Hare and rabbit take on an interesting flavor when marinated in mustard before cooking. And mustard can be used to brush on a quiche shell before baking.

Mustard lends itself to last-minute fancy cooking because it is itself an "instant" sauce. Try brushing boned chicken breasts with mustard, then coat them with fresh bread crumbs, drizzle with olive oil or melted butter and broil them for 5 minutes or so.

Freshness of mustard is very important. Flavor changes very rapidly after a jar is opened. You can keep mustard fresh by putting a slice of lemon on top before closing the lid and refrigerating it.

We've gathered and tasted over 40 mustards from around Washington. You can use this list as a departure for your own experiments.

Prices following the mustards in parentheses represent the coast per ounce (about 2 tablespoons) and are approximate. Stores where the products can be found also are listed. HOT DOG

French's (5 cents) outsells all other mustards across the nation (except, interestingly, in New York City, where Gulden's takes over), possibly because it is often the only mustard children will abide. The color is light yellow. The taste cries for a hot dog, but is positively ruinous to fine sauces and refined cooking.

French's also produces some variations on the day-glow yellow theme, including a horseradish mustard (7 cents), which has a nice bite added to the catchy ball-park flavor, and one with onion bits (8 cents), which is on the sweet side with some added crunch. Gulden's Creamy Mild (6 cents, at most supermarkets) has the same bright saffron color (obtained by adding turmeric) and sharp instant taste as French's basic mustard. They are interchangeable. AMERICAN

Gulden's brand is sold in almost every market in two forms: spicy brown (7 cents), with a more vinegary flavor than creamy mild, and diablo (9 cents), which is a little sharper still but with a cardboardy overcast.

Zatarain's Creole mustard (19 cents at Georgetown Wine and Food, 1015 Wisconsin Ave. NW) is mild and slightly grainy with flecks of mustard seed and spice.

Harmon's (14 cents at Georgetown Wine and Food) makes an array of tongue-tingling mustards such as dill, sweet-hot, jalapeno and toasted onion. The base in the first two is a bit floury, but the last two are especially successful flavor mixtures which would be delightful as dips for cheese and vegetables.

Mrs. Bailey's Hot Mustard Sauce (27 cents at Georgetown Wine and Food) is peppery and sweet.

Kosciusko (8 cents at many supermarkets) is mild and mustardy; very good flavor and value.

Old Spice Hickory Smoke Mustard with Honey (21 cents at Georgetown Wine and Food) is awful taken straight, but would be a good barbecue basting sauce.

Grey Poupon (11 cents at most supermarkets) is the only Dijon mustard licensed for production in the United States and is produced in California. Made traditionally, with white wine, it is a fine, well-balanced standby for most cooking and eating purposes.

La-Fortuna (22 cents at Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice, 1330 Wisconsin Ave. NW) is a Chinese-type mustard which lives up to the reputation of the genre. It's guaranteed to clear your sinuses and should be used sparingly.

There are a great many American "mustard sauces" to be found, most of which are truly inedible. We found the ones we tasted floury, dry and insincere, including, unfortunately, McMurphy's Magical Mustard Sauce from Middleburg, which used to be addictively good but is now made from a new formula (in a jar with a red and yellow label) and has joined the ranks of the unpalatable. DIJON

Dessaux Fils (17 cents at The French Market, 1632 Wisconsin Ave. NW NW) is a peppy mustard with more finesse than American counterparts. It comes in many forms, including decorative crocks and a 6-ounce reusable glass jar with a plastic lid. Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice packs bulk Dessaux in several sizes of French glass, snap-lid crocks. The price is about 20 cents per ounce.

Amora (14 cents at Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice), which, along with Grey Poupon and Maille, is one of the top three volume producers of mustard in Dijon, makes a mild and complex blend with a distinctive tang. Amora also packs its basic Dijon is a metal toothpaste-type tube which sells for 23 cents per ounce at Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice. The tube mustard seems more piquant.

Maille (31 cents at French Market) is a little drier than the other Dijons but has excellent flavor.

Queen's Gate (12 cents at Safeway) is creamy and flavorful; preferred in our blind tasting over Grey Poupon, which sells for roughly the same price.

Other Dijons we did not sample: Bocquet (71 cents at Neam's Market, 3217 P St. NW); Picarome (24 cents at the French Market). DIJON-STYLE

Colman's, the British mustardmaker, puts out a version of Dijon (20 cents at Safeway) made with grape juice concentrate, which has an English character; it is much stronger than those which it imitates.

Mister Mustand (13 cents at Posins' Delicatessen, 5756 Georgia Ave. NW) is our American copy of Dijon. It misses the mark, probably because no white wine or verjuice is added.

Devus Lemmens (33 cents at Neam's Market) comes from Belgium. GERMAN

Lion (40 cents at The German Deli, 814 11th St. NW) is made with wine vinegar and is pleasantly well-rounded. Deservedly the best-known Dusseldorf mustard.

Frenzel Bavarian (33 cents at The German Deli) has a coarse texture and a smooth and sweet taste which compliments all kinds of German wurst. Frenzel Senfli (33 cents at The German Deli) tastes like a stylish French's.

Hengstenberg (27 cents at The German Deli) is dense and spicy, with a flavor oddly reminiscent of beer. It would go well with sausages or strong cheese.

Colmen's German-Style (21 cents at Safeway) is timid and sweet. SWEDISH

Druvan Sweet and Hot varieties (27 cents at The German Deli) are packed in wide-mouth glass dishes with plastic lids which could be used to serve the mustard as all-around dips for which the sweetly mild flavors would be well-suited.

Slott's Skansk (35 cents at The German Deli) tastes like a relish.

Slott's Prepared Mustard (35 cents at The German Deli) is sweet, spicy and not very mustardy. GRAINY

This faddish style of mustard, containing whole and crushed seeds, became popular in the U.S. a few years ago. Not bad on sandwiches or with cold meats, but it is a curiosity rather than an all-purpose mustard.

Queen's Gate (12 cents at Safeway). Almost artificial tasting.

Amora Moutarde a l'Ancienne (21 cents at Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice) has a pleasant, complex flavor.

Pommery (26 cents at Neam's Market). Rather dense and not as well-made as others. DRY

Simply mix these powders with any liquid to make your own mustard just before mealtimes.

Colman's (90 cents for 2 dry ounces at Safeway). Made from ground black and yellow seeds with turmeric for color. A must for any spice cabinet.

Trader Vic's Chinese Style Hot Mustard ($1.29 for 2 dry ounces at Georgetown Wine and Food). When making a paste with this, add a little soy sauce along with water, beer or wine to make an Oriental-tasting mustard. ITALIAN

Although Italian cuisine made use of mustard more in the past than it does now, it offers an intriguing specialty called mostarda, which is a relish of fruits preserved in sugar to which a good deal of mustard has been added. This mixture has a lovely color and flavor which goes beautifully with all kinds of simply-prepared meats. You can find it at Vace, 3510 Connecticut Ave. NW, at $2.25 for a 14-ounce jar. FLAVORED

Most flavored mustards are disappointing and gimmicky. Those which are made in Dijon are mostly for export, as the French prefer their mustard straight and strong. Maille and Amora's tarragon-flavored offerings were too extreme and in both cases the mustard was completely lost behind the metallic and anise-like herb. Maille with lemon gave off the taste of lemon rind, which, in fact, is what is used in the blend. After we had tried these and some others, we came to the conclusion that it might be wiser, from a culinary point of view, to add one's own flavorings to mustard and control the strength and quality. HOMEMADE

Mustard is easy to make and wonderful to give and receive. By dressing up a pretty container you can have an unusual and inexpensive gift with a minimum of effort.

"Made" mustard falls into two categories:

Hot, which is made with cold liquids and toned down with other additions. Here is a recipe for this type: HOT MUSTARD (Makes 1 1/2 cups) 1/3 (3 ounces) light or dark mustard seeds (see note) 1 cup water 2 tablespoons wine vinegar 2 tablespoons honey 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons turmeric (optional)

Add mustard seeds and water to the container of electric blender and soak overnight to soften. The next morning, blend thoroughly with vinegar, honey and salt. You can vary these amounts according to the flavor you desire. If you are using yellow seeds, you may want to add the turmeric for color.

Note: Yellow mustard seeds can be found in many supermarkets. Spice Island brand sells for about 99 cents for 3.1 ounces. Brown mustard seeds are stronger-flavored and rarer. They can be purchased for $2 per pound at Spices and Foods Unlimited, 2018A Florida Ave. NW.

Following is a recipe for a milder, Dijon-style mustard: MILD MUSTARD (2 cups) 2 cups dry white wine 1 large onion, minced 2 cloves garlic, minced 4 ounces dry mustard (use Colman's, or powder seeds in an electric mill) 2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 2 teaspoons salt Few drops liquid red pepper seasoning or a few grains cayene pepper

Heat together wine, onion and garlic to boiling; simmer 5 minutes. Cool this mixture and strain onto dry mustard in another saucepan, stirring constantly until smooth.

Blend honey, oil, salt and pepper seasoning into mustard mixture and heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens.

When mustard is cool, pour into non-metal containers and chill for at least two days to blend flavors. You can alter the formula with additions, such as tomato puree, grated orange peel or tarragon.