On the Levantine coasts of France and Spain, Aioli is not a sauce but a freaking cult. And due to emigration, tourism and culinary snobbery this ailment has spread deep inland. Its devotees, the Aiolians (worshippers of Aiolus, the petty Greek god of Bad Breath, who plays a cameo role in the 53rd canto of the Ilias where he scares away a phalanx of Trojan warriors by chemical attack), do not eat the sauce, but partake of it. For them, aioli is not meant to accompany a dish, but the other way around. Aioli is the pièce de résistance; all the rest is garnish. How anybody can be so bloody fetishist about a simple sauce escapes me!
What precisely is Aioli then? Well: Aioli is simply a mixture of garlic and oil (as you would learn from the name had they not mystified the business beyond recognition by using the old French name of both ingredients), with a little salt and a lot of pompousness thrown in. There are two kinds: True Aioli and Fake Aioli. Both have their pros and their cons. But if the honest truth be told: the Cons have it.
Authentic Aioli – made of oil and garlic only - is a horridly slow and laborious affair. This comes as no surprise, since it was invented in the Darkest Middle Ages, when there was no telly, no radio, no tax forms to fill out, no rooms to paint, twitter to keep up with and no children to spoil. Then, people could afford to whip up this pap in their spare time between the building of two cathedrals. But those days are passed, dear reader, and it is not a Sauce For Our Time.
I’ve had some interesting Aioli experiences in my life. The most telling was 75 years ago, when I was on a little R&R from the trenches of Madrid with a group of Valencian anarcho-syndicalists at the village of Valsaín near Segovia. On our first afternoon, their political commissar, a young lady who eerily resembled Felix Dzerzhinsky both in character and looks, ‘proposed’ to make an Aioli that the roast could go with. Nobody in the cabin dared to refuse, and so they set to work, first peeling five whole heads of garlic, then cutting them in razor-thin slices, then slowly pounding them to pulp in an outsized mortar.
It took forever.
Exempt from forced labour for being an ignorant foreigner who knew not how to pound correctly, I went for a couple of drinks in the local watering hole. When I returned they were still at it. I then went for a stroll with a Scottish symbolic poet from the International Brigades. We admired the splendid pine forests of the valley; we visited the ruined palace; we discussed at length the works of Hakobian and Mayakovsky. When three hours later we returned…. the culinary chain gang had just begun to drip minuscule dribs of olive oil into the pulverized mass of garlic. As they mixed and mixed and mixed, I slumped into a chair and read three Lope de Vega plays. Night fell. Owls began screeching outside. The night bombardment of Madrid came on and went away. Then, at last, our Aioli had materialized, and got served with a side dish of grilled Guernica meat.
It was ghastly.
It had no body. It had no bottom. It had no taste to speak of. It was water the greasy way. You could barely notice it, except that a putrid wind, sufficiently polluted to cause a lethal bout of malaria, swept through your system every time you dared to take a breath. When the meal was over it was time to go asleep. Except: you couldn’t. Until long after sunrise, I gurgled up garlic, my bowels engaged in civil war, and I had to resist the urge to puke.
So there you have it: a True Authentic Aioli is the result of a longwinded process which endangers the health of your guests and does nothing to improve the world. What a difference, I dare say, with Mayonnaise, that Divine Manna, that Gift from the Gods of Taste and Sophistication, that Blessing Beyond Bliss! Now there you have a sauce which turns your meal into a feast, your most prosaic dishes into a mystic experience, your life into a saga!
This undeniable truth is shared, as it happens, by what I shall call the Reformed Aiolians. These make it easy on themselves. They do not mash their garlic until it is ready for binding the oil, but do the sensible thing, and add an egg yolk to the mush after only two hours of pounding. The yolk then binds the oil and everybody happy. Unsurprisingly, such Fake Aioli is sneered at by the Authentic Aiolians. They dismiss it as ‘only Mayonnaise with garlic’, the same way the Goths derided the splendid Roman temples as ‘merely chipped marble set up straight’ (Livius, Book XXII).
However, I must agree with these grand inquisitors of cuisine in substance if not form. Indeed it is nonsensical to make Fake Aioli. It IS but Garlic Mayonnaise mixed in an excruciatingly masochistic manner! And if it is, then why not be reasonable and make instead a beautiful, Mayonnaise based, Garlic Sauce? It is easier. It is faster. It is healthier. And it is far more satisfying. Your guests will come away from the table with a better digestion and a happier mien. And if you are one of those poor souls who absolutely has to show off to their demanding invités, then simply adapt the message, my gay friend. Tell those whom you wish to impress so much that they are partaking of ‘a very rare Aioli variety’. Which is the plain truth since this is Alfred B. Mittington’s unfailing and inimitable recipe for
Aioli al Fredo
Start a day in advance. Take a normal soup-bowl. Fill it halfway with a good quality Mayonnaise, either homemade or bottled. Add to this:
1 medium sized clove of garlic (preferably run through the garlic-presser, if not: chopped and pounded)
1 thin slice of ham (not raw!) cut into smithereens
1 spoonful of chopped parsley
1 spoonful of finely chopped onion
half a teaspoon of sugar (no honey!)
salt and fresh black pepper
Mix the ingredients. Lick the spoon. Cover the bowl. Put it in the fridge. Let it sit for at least 12 hours (but 24 is better). Go watch La Grande Bouffe. There: you have just saved yourself half a day’s work for a much yummier result.
If you must lighten the sauce, you may replace up to 1/3 of the Mayonnaise with yoghurt, milk, salad cream or even water. Beware not to overdo that, however. The sauce gets awfully weak in the knees if you do.
This miraculous Aioli goes with all sorts of meat, with a variety of potatoes dishes, with artichoke hearts, and even as a dip for bread or chunks of vegetables.
Make it once, watch your guests, be their hero, and then steer clear from that diabolical invention of the dark middle ages they call Aioli!