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People's choice: Napa Valley Wine Train chef Patrick Finney.

Ol' Yeller

Mustard Festival spreads it on

By Marina Wolf

IN NAPA VALLEY, Mother Nature gets the last laugh on those who think the coldest time of the year is the dreariest. Long after the harvest crush of tourists has faded, crazy yellow blooms of wild mustard burst out along fences and between bare rows of gnarled vines. "It actually lends the valley to a whole other season that people don't ever see," says Patrick Finney, host chef for this year's ambitious Napa Valley Mustard Festival.

The festival, running Jan. 29 through March 25 (see sidebar), is meant to honor the sunny mustard plant, all parts of which are actually edible. But in these parts, the wild weed gets used primarily for garnish. Even in the mustard festival chef competition, the mustard principle usually comes from prepared mustard instead of the whole seed.

If you're having problems envisioning sophisticated cuisine incorporating the yellow spice, perhaps you're stuck in that hot-dog-and pretzel paradigm. Let Finney help you out with the dish that earned him the title 1999 Chef of the Year at last year's festival: smoked chicken with a mustard-cream sauce, served on a crispy wonton and accompanied by apple-Maui onion chow-chow. This exotic dish also earned the Napa Valley Wine Train chef the "People's Choice" honor, but Finney isn't resting on his laurels. He's already engaged in "research and development" on his entry for this year's competition.

Finney doesn't use mustard as a mustard-season gimmick. This humble condiment, in all its variations, has a regular place in Finney's rolling pantry, adding savor and a hint of sharpness to some of the train's signature dishes. In his chicken liver and truffle paté, for example, Finney accents the dish with both Dijon and whole-grain mustard. Another dining-car favorite is his sturgeon with a saffron-mustard beurre blanc sauce. The traditional white-wine-and-butter sauce is touched with the intense color of saffron, and then spiced up with mustard at the very last minute, a key point for anyone cooking with mustard, says Finney.

"You never want to boil or overheat mustard," he explains, "because it becomes very bitter. Add it at the last minute, unless you're dealing with the whole seed."

FOR THIS YEAR'S opening event, "Mustard Magic: Une Soirée Française," Finney is planning another old favorite: a rack of lamb rubbed with a mild achiote paste before roasting, and then sauced with a chipotle pepper and whole-grain mustard concoction. "I've done this the last couple of years and people have asked for me to do it again." He laughs. "I don't want to let anybody down."

As with anything in Napa Valley, the annual Mustard Festival has a serious wine component. Bernard Portet, president and winemaker at Clos du Val, is this year's host winemaker, lending a decidedly French flair to the proceedings. But still one pauses over the question--maybe it's that classist, anti-mustard prejudice again--what kind of wine does one drink with mustard flavors?

For starters, it's not usually an issue because most chefs prefer to keep the mustard in a complementary role, harmonizing gently with the primary flavors of the dish. "If you get to the point where mustard is the main flavor, then you've pretty much defeated the purpose of the dish," Finney says. "You might as well be serving a bowl of mustard."

The primary considerations, then, are the main ingredients of the dish, but mustard's pungency cannot be ignored. In the case of his sturgeon dish, Finney recommends a sauvignon blanc, a fumé blanc, or even a chardonnay, "depending on how it was made," he says.

"I'd want some woody overtones to cut the strength of the mustard."

Those who can appreciate that subtlety are the target ticketholders to the Mustard Festival. But Finney relates a story that illustrates the pull of mustard's magic on foodies of all ages. Either that or it might be another only-in-the-Bay Area item. Last year he brought in samples of mustard for the kiddies at his son's elementary school. They dipped and nibbled mustards from all along the spectrum, from French's brand--a staple for hot-dog lovers--to samples from the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum in Wisconsin. The hot-dog mustard ended up with the most praise, but not all of it.

"It was funny to watch," says Finney. "Definitely hot-dog mustard was the favorite, but there were a number of children who tried the other ones--raspberry, apricot, zinfandel--and liked them very much. They probably went home and turned their parents on to them." *

Festival Schedule

Mustard Magic Art, theater, music, and even aerial artistes load the opening event with an oh-so-French feel at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone on Saturday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. The many-storied stone mansion lends itself to wandering and tasting from the offerings of Napa Valley chefs and winemakers. CIA-Greystone is at 2555 Main St. in St. Helena. Tickets are $95 per person in advance, $125 at the door. For information or tickets, call 259-9020.

Savor St. Helena The little town that could invites weekend guests to its downtown for a tasteful street fair that covers all of the important points: food, wine, music--ooh, and window-shopping! Tasting tickets and wine glasses are available on-site. Saturday, Feb. 13, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For a list of participating businesses and restaurants, see the website at www.StHelena.com, or call 963-4456.

The Awards Chefs go for the gusto in the night that decides the Mustard Festival chef for next year. Sensory scientists from UC-Davis and food journalists from all over judge the recipes, then the public samples and votes for its favorite. Clos Pegase Winery hosts in its reception hall and caves. Friday, March 10, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $75 per person in advance, $100 at the door; net proceeds benefit Napa Valley art, historical, and educational organizations. 259-9020.

!Olé Mostaza! Robert Mondavi Winery opens its doors for an evening of fine art, rare wines, and great auction packages, along with Latin music and appropriate hors d'oeuvres. Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $65 per person; proceeds benefit the River School, Napa Valley's art-based charter school. 253-6813.

The Marketplace A foodie fantasy come true at the Napa Valley Exposition, where dozens of demos and scads of samples, plus music, exhibits, arts and crafts, and other great divertissements fill the building. Saturday and Sunday, March 11-12, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $7 for adults, $2 for children 12 and under; tasting package is available for $25. 259-9020.

A Taste of Yountville The most gourmet restaurants per capita and more high-class fun per square foot in this afternoon of good taste and the good life, hosted by eateries and retailers up and down the downtown. Tasting tickets are available on-site; most demonstrations are free. Saturday, March 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 944-0904.

Other events include a golf benefit, a marathon, a Blessing of the Balloons, and a photography contest, the finalists of which will be announced at "The Photo Finish," the wrap-up extravaganza on Saturday, March 25, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $65 per person in advance, $75 at the door. For further details about any of the festival events, call 259-9020.

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From the January 27-February 2, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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