Do you know what happiness tastes like? I do. It’s a silky emulsion of crushed garlic, egg yolk and Provencal olive oil and it’s best tasted in a Mediterranean port town in the golden hours before dusk. At least, that’s my most recent experience.
Quite to my shock and delight, I’ve just won an aïoli-making contest. In Provence, home of aioli. This is akin to an Aucklander going to Westport and winning a prize for catching whitebait (or a Wellingtonian winning a baking prize at the Westport A&P show, but that’s another story).
When they called my name out as the winner I was so gobsmacked I could barely breathe. That might have been the result of 20 minutes of furiously pounding garlic in a wooden mortar and pestle, beneath the fierce scrutiny of women in traditional Provençal costumes who looked like extras from The Handmaid’s Tale, but I think it was the general surprise that did it.
When I told the compere that I was from New Zealand there was an audible gasp among the watching spectators. A local chef, who came second, was definitely not amused. But the old ladies, who had kept such a close eye on me during the making process, were thrilled. And when I went to thank the organisers (the mysterious Confrerie des Chevaliers de l’Aiet’ – a sort of secret society devoted to all things garlic), they asked me if I could come back for a conference in October. Oh, to be able to carve out a new life as a professional aioli-maker in Provence… please, President Macron, can’t I stay?
How to make aïoli
Now, all this hasn’t gone to my head. I know I’m not the aïoli oracle (and, given the debate going on between the bonneted women watching, I’m not sure anyone would be brave enough to claim to be). However, this is how I made it the other night. No recipe, just instinct. If only all life’s tests were this simple.
Peel two plump cloves of garlic. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic to a pulp with a pinch of salt. Don’t rush this step – the garlic must be smooth or you’ll end up with ‘bits’ in the finished aïoli. Add an egg yolk and mix well (keep using the pestle as your main tool here). Decant about 200-225ml of your very best extra virgin olive oil into a bottle where you can keep tight control on its flow. Add the oil, drop by drop, to the garlic and egg mixture, constantly stirring with the pestle. Doing it drop by drop is essential – you can’t rush this part or it won’t work. Once about half the oil is in, you can relax and add about a teaspoonful at a time, making sure it’s all emulsified before adding the next. This might sound painstaking, but it’s worth it. You’ll know it’s done when the aïoli has the texture of proper mayonnaise. It will hold its shape – and, when you tip the mortar upside down, it will stay put rather than sliding out.
If you’re being Provençal, you can now eat it with tiny new potatoes, or raw vegetables, or with grilled fish, or any other way you like. It’s not bad chased by a glass of thirst-quenching local rosé, especially in the soft sea air.