Invitation for a Grand Aioli party in Provence

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Preface: Pliny, (AD 23-AD 79) the famous Roman naturalist hated the garlic so much that once in his anger he told that the garlic carries the darkness and evil alone, but later, when he had learned that the garlic chases away the worms and poisonous animals, he suggested to his friends to peel it, crush it into wine and drink it. All this occurred to me, when I was in Toulon last summer. 

The grand aioli party

With the Mount Faron (542 m,) in the background, and opening out onto a magnificent harbor “designed by Mother Nature”, Toulon was a city of contrast. On the one hand it was an old picturesque city of ancient fountains, cathedrals (St Marie’s was built in 1740), opera and a colorful daily market with the smells and sounds, typical of Provence but on the other hand it’s a large military port, (it was the French Navy’s war port for all of the Mediterranean countries). But before anybody would sentence Toulon I can assure you that Toulon offered a complete choice of activities: music festivals, the contemporary art museum, the naval museum, the dance festival at Château Vallon, but in my case a grand aioli party as well!

Being always curious to other nation’s cuisine I was so excited when Morgane, (my French friend) invited me a grand aioli dinner which took place at her parents house. She called me on the phone two hours before the dinner and draw my attention onto a French tradition that (which concerns the dinner) I should bring some vegetables, fruits, meat, fish. Until that day I didn’t know that the grand aioli is a kind of old favorite fest for garlic lovers especially for the people of the Provence region of France. Viz. in this event hand-made garlic mayonnaise would be served as a wonderfully pungent accompaniment to platters of poached cod and a variety of seasonal vegetables (alongside with a nice rosé wine).

I arrived around 7 pm at he Morgane’s and instead of a bunch of flower I gave a “bunch” of spring onion, carrots, broccoli, and some shrimps to her mother. Half an hour later, when approx. twenty guests’s stomachs felt the pangs of hunger (the French, like the Mediterranean people in general, like late dinner, with good company, wine and good humor) we all cheered up when Morgan’s father appeared with mayonnaise, garlic, salt, pepper, extra virgin oliva oil in his hand. We, like children, surrounded him in order to look at it how the garlic sauce had to be prepared:

First he brought a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat, then he added the onion, reduced the heat to medium-low and kept the water at a slow boil. He added the potatoes and cooked them until they were tender and just was cooked through about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, he removed them to a serving platter.

Next he added the carrots to the liquid and simmered them until they were just cooked through, usually around 7 or 8 minutes. He removed them with a slotted spoon and arranged them neatly next to the potatoes.

Then he added the green beans and let them cooked until they were done about 5 or 6 minutes. He set them nicely next to the carrots on the platter.

Finally, he added the cod filets and let them simmer until cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. He removed to the platter. He added the hard-boiled eggs to the platter. Covered the platter loosely with foil and set aside.

The aioli: he added the garlic cloves and a big pinch of salt to a large mortar and used a pestle to mash the garlic cloves to a puree. He added the egg yolks and ground them into the garlic puree until the mixture was smooth. Then he dribbled the olive oil down the side of the mortar very slowly, grinding the pestle all the while and always in the same clockwise or counterclockwise direction. The sauce started to begin to thicken. After about half of the olive oil had been added, he squeezed in the lemon juice (or vinegar). Then resumed adding the olive oil. (You can pour it a little faster at this point). The egg yolk and olive oil formed a thick emulsion. Finally he seasoned with salt and pepper. And the food was ready!

-Á la table!-he whooped. It was not necessary to say it twice, believe me! We were all like hungry wolves, immediately attacked the food. I packed my plate with the freshly steamed vegetables, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot and dipped every bite in the garlicky sauce. The aioli sauce, together with the shrimp and the cod fish, not to mention the excellent Rosé, for me it was the perfect dinner.

To Prepare the Aïoli in the Modern Way: Place the garlic, egg yolks, lemon juice or vinegar and salt in a blender and puree until smooth. Then, with the blender running, slowly dribble the olive oil into the yolks. This will make a firmer, smoother aïoli, but it won’t have quite the character of one that is handmade.

Le grand aïoli is especially popular at large village gatherings. Sometimes called l’aïoli monstre or simply l’aïoli.

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