La Femme Sans Tête

We’d been on the road for a couple of weeks, savouring the wines, cheeses, gorgeous verdant countryside, idyllic camping beside glistening, rushing rivers, we were in our own version of Heaven.  We arrived in Burgundy and were not disappointed by the beauty of the vineyards and the majestic roads that appeared to be endless tunnels, so shaded by trees from either side.  One of our favourite parts of being on the road was getting lost, for that was when we found the most interesting and exquisite places and the day we arrived in Burgundy was no exception.  Hopelessly lost, we came across a small village, a typical one of many, as you well-travelled folk will know.  Protected and shaded amongst tall, wizened old trees sat tiny, crumbling old houses with, in this case, sky blue shutters, it sat alongside a gently running river, a quaint, quiet, typical village.  We we sat down to lunch on the tiny terrace of the only restaurant in the village, beautifully shaded by vines and heavenly scented by huge pots of lavender and rosemary, our wine poured, we raised our glasses to the smiling old man sitting opposite us.  ‘Salut’ we all chimed and swallowed the nectar of a local red burgundy.  We asked the man, Gerard it turned out, about the village and the unusual name of the river we were all admiring and his eyes lit up as he began to tell us the story of why this village and particularly the river, whilst not famous, was infamous in the region.  We made ourselves comfortable and settled in for a very long lunch and an incredible story we could hardly believe.

Back in 1751 there was a race taking place, a competition was being held between all of the villages in the Burgundy region, the winner of which would be pronounced the creator of the most perfect mustard recipe which would thence be known as ‘Dijon’ mustard.  Anyone and everyone could enter and the whole area was engulfed in the heady scent of mustard seeds, verjuice and a cornucopia of assorted spice smells as the entire population of Burgundy proceeded to perfect their recipes.  Each creator closely guarded their recipe, constantly watching over their shoulders as they crushed their seeds and spices and they hid their coded notes in the most secret places they could conjure; as time went on and paranoia became their constant partner, some were even known to memorise their notes and eat them.

It was an extremely busy year as chefs, cooks, housewives, scientists, inventors and even the clergy! submitted their mustards to the judges for tastings.  Hundreds, possibly thousands, were to return to their homes, heads downcast, tears pooling at their feet, as their recipes were rejected.   Finally, it came down to the final three, each had a sublime recipe and the judges’ final decision became an impossible task.  After several days of taste upon taste, burned, peeling lips and bloodshot eyes, the judges decided that they needed to recuperate, to cleanse their palates and allow their taste buds to return to their former glory and so they determined to allow the final three to return to their kitchens, to make ultimate tweaks, adjustments and improvements and upon a final tasting, the winner, with the honour of having their mustard known as ‘Dijon’ mustard, would be announced.

They were three very different mustard concoctors, there was Madame Soufflé, a bakers wife (yes really, apparently), blonde, bouncy curls, mischievous, sparkling blue eyes which almost disappeared into her rosy cheeks when she laughed, she was cheerful, plump, pretty and unassuming, on the surface, but bubbling underneath the simpering façade was a woman fiercely determined to win.  Madame Dupres was a middle-aged innkeeper, always impeccable, never a hair fallen from the tightly wound bun at the back of her head, hooded indigo eyes, which were known to cause the most raucous of farmers to stop in his tracks when she glared imperiously down the length of her magnificent nose at him.  She was famous through many regions for her delectable food, her lack of humour and her fearsome temper. Monsieur Naigeon was the third finalist, from the city of Dijon, tall and slender, always a little unkempt as all true creators are wont to be, a quiet, unassuming gentleman, already noted as an extremely talented producer of mustard.

Coincidentally and somewhat unfortunately, the two ladies both hailed from this tiny village that you and I are sitting in and yes, war ensued.

Competition between them was intense and aggressive, it’s said Madame Dupres screeching was heard as far as the next village, five kilometres away and Madame Soufflés plumped up cheerful veneer was replaced with a grumpy, sagging, half empty bag of flour face.  Each was accusing the other of attempting to steal their recipes, both sending children (and in the case of Madame Dupres, a fully trained raven) to spy on the other, verbally attacking each other on the street and ultimately resulting in such cat fights that they had to pulled apart by their long-suffering spouses.   Monsieur Naigeon was blissfully unaware of these explosive dramas as he gently crushed, mixed and stirred in his kitchen laboratory.

As the final judgement loomed the ladies became frantic, neither slept nor left their kitchens other than to secretly gather more spices, they forfeit their families and their daily chores, they were obsessed with both winning and with beating each other,

They were trying and testing so many different types of mustard seeds and spices that their heads were swimming with mustardy madness! It was generally accepted in the village that Madame Dupres and Madame Soufflé had gone insane.

With days to go Madame Dupres knew that she needed to pull an extremely large rabbit out of her bonnet if she was going to win.  She sent her nephew, Florian, a small, mousey, forgettable child, quick and sly, to steal a pot of Madame Soufflé’s most recent mustard, she desperately needed to taste it, then she would know for certain if she had made a better mustard and, sacre bleu! if not, to determine how to better it.  Florian arrived with the mustard, Madame Dupres gingerly tasted and went immediately into one of her terrifying tantrums, throwing the offending pot of mustard at Florian and thankfully just missing his somewhat empty head, whereupon she slumped to the ground and fell into a deep pit of depression.  She reluctantly admitted, but only to herself, that Madame Soufflé had produced the better mustard.   Armed with this disheartening knowledge, Madame Dupres went into a frenzy of activity, she collected all the spices she could find, taking no heed of what they were or where they had come from, she had mounds of them along with salt, mustard seeds, sugar and gallons and flagons of verjuice and even vinegar.  Her home vanished within a spicy, scented haze of smoke as she pummelled, pounded, ground and stirred, faster and faster in a feverish, tunnelled vision of mustard perfection.

The explosion was not loud, a gentle puff that sent a small rumble through the streets of the entire village.

The villagers slowly emerged from their homes, choking and spluttering on the sickening scent and cloying dust of powdered mustard seeds and other untold spices, every building was frosted with spice and there was no roof on the Dupres inn.

They cautiously approached the inn and peeped into the now windowless kitchen, staring in horror at Madame Dupres, unmoving, a bowl of mustard still in her arms, the wooden spoon stuck forever in a static stir, her head nowhere to be seen.

It took several days to find Madame Dupres head bobbing along in the river, the obsession and passion still visible on her face.  Monsieur Dupres gently lifted her head from the river and placed it with her body in the family tomb, along with her favourite painted mustard jar, he would move away from the village soon after, to live a quiet mustard free life with his children and their children.  Madame Soufflé attended the funeral of course, effecting the perfect posture of humility and shame, she bowed her head and sympathised with the Dupres family whilst she quietly delighted in the demise of Madame Dupres, she could barely contain herself as excitement wound its way through her entire body, she was very much looking forward to reaping the rewards of creating the perfect ‘Dijon’ mustard.

As it turned out, the ladies, being so eager to out-do each other, had totally forgotten about Monsieur Naigeon who had been quietly perfecting an altogether different and unique mustard recipe, with the inspired addition of vinegar instead of verjuice (Madame Dupres was on to something after all).  The judges were unanimous in their verdict that his mustard was perfection and it was crowned ‘Dijon’ mustard for eternity.

Madame Soufflé accepted defeat with grace and upon tasting Monsieur Naigeons mustard was unable to criticise it in any way.  She went back to baking bread with her husband, her face slowly plumping, her curls regaining their bounce and her smile broadening, the memory of mustard making grew dim and eventually faded by the end of her long, contented life.

Monsieur Jean Naigeon began to produce the Dijon mustard which is now famous the world over, his name is on each jar to this day, deservedly so, don’t you agree?

That unusually named river, whose hypnotic, rythmic ripples serenaded us as we sat and listened to Gerards improbable, terrible, unbelievable tale, was ‘La femme sans tête’, named for her in 1753.  Should you decide to take a road trip through France and find yourself meandering along the E17, be sure to look out for it and whisper hello to the mustardly mad, marvellous, passionate, headless, Madame Dupres…