What do you do with a word like aïoli the first time you see it in print? If you don’t grow up versed in languages containing umlauts, It’s confusing for sure. Maybe I resisted learning much more until I started cooking and I discovered how good a word with an umlaut could taste! The first time I made an aïoli I was in Key West, not sunny Provence from whence she likely shone first. But the sun connected us through the gypsy medium of garlic!
I was working at a little restaurant called “The Port of Call.” There in the port town of Key West I was making my first wave of seafood soups following the recipes of Fernand Point, Escoffier, Carême and an upstart French born gent but now living in America, and doing very well, named Jacques Pépin. The soups had names that included bouillabaisse, cotriade, bourride and the like. Bouillabaisse actually calls for aïoli’s cousin, rouille, but the bourride and cotriade were meant to dance with aïoli.
I bought a cookbook by the great Richard Olney and followed his simple, but firm, instructions to the letter. That led me to buy my first mortar and pestle. Then I got to work until I mastered that lusty sauce!
Aïoli is the conjoining of two words, ail meaning “garlic” and oli representing the olive oil. Egg yolks and a splash of lemon juice complete this sauce along with fresh squeezed lemon, salt, and a twist or three of pepper.
My most cherished experience with the sauce christened aïoli came at the home of Lulu Peyraud in the town of Bandol in France, also a port town halfway between Marseilles and Toulon. There, at her vineyard home, the famous octogenarian was the muse to folks like Richard Olney and Alice Waters, the venerated American proprietor of “Chez Panisse” restaurant in Berkeley, California.
Lulu (as she insisted we call her) served us a simple seafood soup much like a bouillabaisse with a small bowl of aïoli on the side for each of us. We drank the wines her family made; Domaine Tempier. She sat next to me and flirted I think. I was temporarily speechles as I beheld the amazing day God was granting me in France with Lulu and all of us so charmed by her, by Provence!
Marcel Boulestin said, “It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.” If a little garlic makes you happy aïoli will have you on the way to delirious, my friends. And speaking of friends, collect only those who love garlic. Who needs the reproach of those whose senses are uncharged by the magic of garlic?
With aïoli we enter a land that the writer John Lanchester describes as one that evokes “a widening of life’s sensuous possibilities, the addition of an extra few notes at either end of one’s emotional keyboard, a set of new stops on the church organ of the psyche, an expansion of every cell of one’s sensory paraphernalia, a new rapprochement between body, mind and spirit; that land which is also an idea, a medium, a métier, a program, an education, a philosophy, a cuisine, a word: Provence.”
Wow! I like a person who gets into it! All right fellas. I’m ready to get up and do my thing.
Like-a Like-a Like-a Sex Machine! Oops. That would be James Brown’s version of getting into it.
We cannot deny that Provence is the birthplace of aïoli. But it travels well. Bring on the aïoli and get in a garlicky good mood. Lulu would want it so.
So would James Brown.
RECIPE FOR BASIC AIOLI
This can be made the classic way in a mortar and pestle manner as well. This is admittedly easier!
Yield: 2 2/3 Cups
2 Egg yolks
2 ½ Tablespoon roasted garlic, mashed
1 Cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Water as needed
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Place the egg yolks in the small bowl of a food processor or mixer and blend together. Add the roasted garlic and combine. Slowly add the olive oil. As the emulsion thickens, add the lemon juice a few drops at a time until all the oil and juice are incorporated. Season with salt and pepper and add as much of the water as is needed to thin the consistency to that of mayonnaise.