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Simple French Food

By Richard Olney

Published 1974

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Aïoli is garlic mayonnaise. Poached salt cod is its constant companion, and around it is built another of the sacred Provençal mystiques. It crowns village festivals: Each summer Provençal villages organize festivals lasting three or four days each, involving orchestras, dancing, music-hall attractions, local talent shows, and fireworks, the final day winding up with an aïoli monstre in the public square, the entire population turning out to pile plates high with boiled salt cod, potatoes, carrots, green beans, artichokes, chick-peas, beets, hard-boiled eggs, snails, squid stew, and huge globs of garlic mayonnaise, liberally moistened with the local rosé. And it is the unquestioned Friday luncheon for countless Provençaux: The local shops in the villages of the Var soak quantities of salt cod on Thursday and sell it the following morning for the luncheon aïoli. In Solliès-Toucas, the local butcher prepares aïoli, boils up salt cod, potatoes, carrots, and snails and portions them out to long waiting lines, each person with an empty dish in hand, between 11:30 and 12:30 every Friday. Snails alone are accompanied by aïoli for the Christmas Eve supper, no doubt because that evening the cod finds itself obligatorily stewed in a raito or a capilotade.

To most outsiders, how the mere thought of boiled salt cod, boiled vegetables, and garlic mayonnaise can transport a solid block of the meridional French population to heights of ecstasy must remain forever incomprehensible; and after having shared an aïoli at a Provençal table, one may find puzzling the medico-analeptic, stomachic properties so earnestly claimed for it (I have read in one of the Marseilles newspapers that, if certain persons find aïoli indigestible, it is simply because too little garlic has been included in its confection, a minimum of four cloves per person being necessary . . .). The combination of raw garlic and an egg yolk emulsion is not particularly digestible and, allied to the inevitable chilled rosé wine, the effect can be deadly (certain non-indigens pretend that only red wine may be drunk with an aïoli and others dismally, but perhaps correctly, assert that only water is possible).

A good aïoli is made with good olive oil. It is, traditionally, prepared in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle; the weight of the mortar prevents it from slip-sliding around as one turns the pestle with one hand while dribbling the oil with the other. I know of no other method as easy or as successful—and certainly no other receptacle from which to serve can be as handsome as the marble mortar. 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. The blender has now invaded the Provençal kitchen, and few aïolis are now mounted by hand; a blender aïoli is lighter, air having been whipped into it, and the flavor is altogether different, the violence—how, I do not know—destroying the fruit of the olive oil; nor is the body voluptuously oily, as in the hand-mounted product, but dry and flat.

Avoid any garlic cloves that are not firm and crisp or at the heart of which a green germ has begun to form. The oil and the egg yolks should both be room temperature to discourage the aïoli’s breaking. It is easy enough to control the flow of oil with one’s thumb held over the bottle top (beginning drop by drop, moving into a tiny but continuous thread until the body is firmly in control and continuing with a heavier thread)—or a narrow V-shape may be cut from the length of a cork before corking the bottle, thus leaving a tiny opening for the dribbling process.

Some people pound a lump of crustless bread, soaked and squeezed dry, into the garlic and egg-yolk mixture before beginning to add the oil. A more easily digestible but less silken aïoli may be prepared by substituting a boiled potato (about 3 ounces—cooled until only tepid) for the egg yolks.

Most French authors content themselves with quoting Reboul’s recipe from La Cuisinière Provençale; I can do no better (although I think it wiser to begin with 2 egg yolks rather than x and to turn them until their yellow pales before beginning to add the oil; and, for my own purposes, I am content to use no more than 3 or 4 cloves of garlic for this batch of aïoli, presumably destined to serve 7 or 8—garlic cloves in the south of France do tend to be about double the size of those in the United States):

Take two cloves of garlic per person, peel them, place them in a mortar, reduce them to a paste with a pestle; add a pinch of salt, an egg yolk and pour in the oil in a thin thread while turning with the pestle. Take care to add the oil very slowly and, during this time, never stop turning; you should obtain a thick pommade. After having added about three or four tablespoons of oil, add the juice of a lemon and a tea–spoonful of tepid water, continue to add oil little by little and, when the pommade again becomes too thick, add another few drops of water, without which it falls apart, so to speak, the oil separating itself from the rest.

If, despite all precautions, this accident should occur, one must remove everything from the mortar, put into it another egg yolk, a few drops of lemon juice and, little by little, spoonful by spoonful, add the unsuccessful aïoli while turning the pestle constantly. This one calls “reinstating the aïoli” (relever l’aïoli).

An aïoli for seven or eight persons will absorb something over two cups of oil.