Big, frothy steins of brewskis get all the play during Oktoberfest. (Cue images of lederhosened Germans partying in Munich in late September, or American frat boys gulping down lager for the entire month of October). But the festival’s food — bratwursts, sauerkraut, vegetables and pretzels — also deserves a “Prost!” especially if it’s served with Oktoberfest’s unofficial condiment, mustard.
OK, the spicy, yellow sauce might not attract as much attention as flaxen-haired St. Pauli girls hoisting hefferveisen, but it’s a big part of any German celebration. “I can’t imagine Oktoberfest without mustard,” says Barry Levenson, curator of the National Mustard Museum, which houses more than 5,300 mustards from 79 countries. “Mustard’s been an integral part of Oktoberfest food since the 15th or 16th century.”
In a mustard-seed shell, the substance is usually made with mustard seeds, oil, vinegar, beer, a sweetener (honey and brown sugar are both popular) and herbs such as turmeric, tarragon and allspice.
Recipes vary widely, but one popular method involves first lightly toasting the mustard seeds to release their flavor before combining them with the other ingredients and allowing them to soak for at least three hours (and sometimes for several weeks). This mixture is then brought to a simmer and blended to a preferred consistency, though some chefs skip both final steps to create bold, whole grain mustard.
But what separates these condiments from that bright yellow stuff you slather on hot dogs at the ballpark? “German mustards are so much more striking than their American counterparts,” says Joel Hatton, executive chef at Georgetown’s Kafe Leopold (3315 M St. NW; 202-965-6005), which hosts a monthlong Oktoberfest party. That extra kick comes from adding whole mustard seeds into the mix (rather than relying on just pre-ground mustard powder), which pack a piquant punch.
During Kafe Leopold’s celebrations, diners go through more than 8 gallons of Hatton’s spicy spreads a week. One of the chef’s most popular poupons is port wine-sour cherry mustard, which adds an unexpected fruity, vinous flavor to his hickory-smoked duck sliders. However, it could be used to elevate other birds such as chicken or game hens. “The mustard brings all the flavors together and gives it a nice zing,” Hatton says.
Across town in the Atlas District, Biergarten Haus (355 H St. NE; 202-388-4053) executive chef Andrew LaPorta slings almost as much yellow sauce as beer. But he actually spent 32 years loathing mustard before he began working at the Germanic eatery. “I had to make it, but I couldn’t stand it,” LaPorta admits. “Now I can’t eat a piece of sausage without it.”
LaPorta crafts four mustards in house, including his signature Sweet and Spicy Mustard (see recipe sidebar), which gets a boost from freshly grated horseradish and an earthy sweetness from the addition of Kostriker dark beer. It’s also mixed into Oma’s Hackbraten (pictured, middle left) which is better known on this side of the Atlantic as Grandma’s Meatloaf, and served with the restaurant’s hearty meat and cheese platter. “You have to dunk German sausages in mustard to really understand their flavor,” he says. “It brings out something extra in the meat.”
“It’s nice to see that this simple condiment is getting all this attention,” says celebrated Austrian chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, who recently published “Neue Cuisine: The elegant tastes of Vienna” ($45, Rizzoli). Though Oktoberfest isn’t celebrated in Gutenbrunner’s homeland, he does throw a party for it at his New York eatery Blaue Gans, which has a menu filled with food such as wursts, wieners, schnitzels and sausages.
However, he also shows that you can improve a continental classic with a little bit of the condiment. Gutenbrunner cooks mountain brook trout on skin till it’s crispy and served with a mustard seed sauce. “It’s the perfect combination,” he says. “You have the familiarity of the American trout mixed with the German tradition of the sauce.”
If you don’t have time to mix up your own mustard to incorporate into a dish (or just to dunk some sausages in), head over to Café Mozart (1331 H St. NW; 202-347-5732), which sells directly from Deutschland jars. Or visit the National Mustard Museum e-store (Store.mustardmuseum.com) to buy more than 500 kinds of mustard, including tubes of addictive Thomy Scharfer Strong Senf.
And unlike those bratwursts and beers you’ll be enjoying at your home beer hall, mustard won’t ruin your diet. “It’s low in calories and fat,” says Levenson. “Not only is it incredibly versatile; it’s also very healthy.”
Sweet and Spicy Mustard
1/2 cup black mustard seeds
1/2 cup yellow mustard seeds
1/4 cup chopped garlic
1/2 cups dark brown sugar
3/4 cup grated fresh horseradish
1 cups Kostriker Black Bier (or similar dark beer)
Toast yellow and black mustard seeds over high heat until they release their aroma. Combine with all other ingredients in large plastic container, whisking to dissolve brown sugar. Refrigerate together for one to two weeks, whisking every couple of days. In batches, pulse together marinade in a blender, adding water until a creamy consistency is achieved. Andrew LaPorta, Biergarten Haus
A Tier of Biers
Randy Kuczor, beer buyer for the P Street Whole Foods, suggests which brewskis match up best with Germany’s favorite condiment and what to eat them with.
Spicy Mustards: Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier Balanced with hops and caramel-y vanilla notes, this brewski provides a nice counterpoint to heat. Gulp it with: Bratwurst with sauerkraut or hot German potato salad.
Medium-Heat Mustards: Erdinger Oktoberfest Viess Beer This has a very light flavor with hints of citrus and floral, so it works well with middle-ground mustards. Gulp it with: Fried fish with fresh squeezed lemon and a side of German coleslaw.
Sweet Mustards: Späten Oktoberfest You get a little bite from the hops at the beginning of this traditional dark beer and a little sweetness at the end. Gulp It With: Spaetzle or Wiener schnitzel with red cabbage.