Food and drink is often made memorable and desirable by association. On occasions, without the proper context, it is difficult to think what the excitement is all about A glass of retsina, drunk with the one you love under the shadow of a vine and outside an enchanting Greek tavema, with the secret bay gleaming in the background, is one thing. Drinking it alone and skint while watching television on a winter's night is another altogether.
Aïoli is one of many French gustatory sacred cows which are at the heart of regional food fantasies. The kik ha fars of Brittany, Nice's soupe au pistou, brandade de morue from the Languedoc - these are the stuff of which dreams are made. All too often, however, our memory distorts and we wonder whether perhaps the snapshot taken through gauze at twilight is a true image, or a nostalgic piece of nonsense, about as jolly in reality as a medieval ploughman’s lunch.
Among these distortions, the ritual of aïoli could take centre stage. Picture the scene, this summer's Friday or Saturday in Provence. Our camera tracks in slowly, embracing the action in wide shot Tables set up in the village square, groaning under the weight of huge platters of glistening salt cod, mounds of boiled potatoes, buckets of snails, vivid vegetables and shining viscous bowls of golden, garlic mayonnaise. It is Jean de Florette scripted by Peter Mayle.
The atmosphere is festive, a happy family occasion. And, as the afternoon wears on and the rosé goes down, all are suffused with the same glow of contentment An apple-cheeked grandmother, helped to her chair by an attentive son, looks around her. ‘Oh la-la. C’est le vrai aïoli, n’est-ce pas?’
Cut to ... a group of embittered British people sitting outside a café miserably sipping pastis which tastes unaccountably of aniseed balls. A waiter, who is very cross because Provence is now overrun by ghastly expatriates, is busily slamming down a scraggy piece of grey cod, a bowl of something which looks like lubricant a few old potatoes and a bottle of inadequately chilled, thin pink wine. A wife whispers to her husband in tones of disbelief: ‘Is that it then? is that aïoli?’
The answer would be, yes it is. As you would have to reply if asked whether sliced white industrial loaf is bread. For aïoli is indeed a movable feast something to be interpreted up or down the quality scale. It must of course, have garlic mayonnaise and in France it would always have salt cod and almost always snails, because Provence is riddled with them. But after that the rules are pretty relaxed, and I prefer to serve poached fresh cod rather than the salted form which is better treated differently (brandade, for example). The vegetables must all be cooked - this is not a platter of crudités.
The crowning glory is, of course, the aïoli itself. Much is made by nearly every food writer I can think of about using a stone pestle and mortar. Richard Olney says ‘a good aïoli should be mounted slowly, rhythmically, and regularly, the pestle turned always in the same direction (clockwise is easiest for me), and, when finished, should be stiff and heavy with a sweaty surface.' He says that using a blender is too violent and destroys the fruit of the olive oil, while making the aïoli lighter than it should be. Much as I love my pestle and mortar (and indeed rarely travel anywhere without them), I find that using an electric whisk makes very acceptable mayonnaise and, far from destroying the fruitiness of the olive oil, the sauce benefits from mixing in at least 50% sunflower oil, for mayonnaise made solely from extra virgin oil is incredibly intense.
Here then is the Little and Whittington method which makes masses for 8 people, and maybe 10. This is not, by the by, a dish for small numbers. Aïoli Garni makes a wonderful communal dish for a summer party, and the more elements the better. It is only what you make of it Rosé would be the wine of choice, for this is, after all, a Provençal tradition. People often get drunk at aïoli feasts, all part of the fun. Since it will be summer, and you will hopefully be outside, you could throw leftover aïoli with impunity at anybody who gets too carried away.
Make the aïoli well ahead: crush the garlic to a pulp using some suitably heavy implement and put into the bowl of a food mixer with the egg yolks. Switch on and beat together with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of white pepper. (Black pepper leaves visible specks but if you do not mind this go ahead and use it) Start to add the olive oil in a thin stream. After you have incorporated half of it, add half the lemon juice. Now beat in half the sunflower oil. If the mayonnaise becomes too thick, add a tablespoon of the warm water. Repeat the process, using the rest of the olive oil, then the remaining lemon juice and finally the remainder of the sunflower oil. Drip in water if at any stage it gets too thick. The consistency should be heavy, a dipping rather than a pouring thickness. If it should separate, just put a third yolk into another bowl and beat the curdled glop into it, a little at a time, until it holds again. Taste. Add more lemon juice if you think it needs it and more salt and pepper. The garlic, being raw, will continue to gain in strength for several hours, but then, this is supposed to be an emphatic sauce. Turn out into a bowl and store in the refrigerator.
Make the court-bouillon as described and allow to cool completely.
Prepare the fish: if the fishmonger has not already done so, cut off the head of the fish. (Cut out the gills with scissors and discard, then freeze the head for use in your next fish soup) • Wash and trim all the vegetables.
Put the cod in a fish kettle, just cover it with the cold court-bouillon (adding more water if necessary) and bring it slowly to the boil. Bubble gently for a minute, turn off the heat and leave to cool in the liquid. When cold, remove from the liquid and scrape off the skin on the uppermost side. Put on a large serving plate.
While the fish is cooling, cook all the vegetables in boiling salted water until just tender, but still with a good deal of crunch. Drain and leave to cool. The artichokes should be cooked in a large pan of boiling salted water to which the juice of a lemon has been added. They are done when the outer leaves come away with ease. Refresh briefly in cold water and drain well upside down. Pull away the inside top leaves and remove the inner choke with a teaspoon. Hard-boil the eggs for 7 minutes and allow them to cool in cold water.
If you have a large enough plate to do so, surround the cod with the cooked vegetables and eggs (I like them still in their shells) arranged decoratively by colour in little piles so that each part of the table will have access to all the ingredients. Scatter the whole dish with the olives and put the aïoli in 2 or 3 bowls around the table.
© 1993 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.