I recently reread Robert Carrier’s ‘Feasts of Provence’, and was reminded of Le Grand Aïoli, a Provencal dish I don’t make often enough. In it, he states “If bouillabaisse vies with bourride and its lesser-known cousin le revesset along the southern coast from Sète to Menton, aïoli is the undisputed star of the arrière-pays, the herb-scented backlands that separate the famed ports of the Riviera from the austere mountain villages behind.” The arrière-pays, or hinterlands, are where farms reign supreme so it is not a total surprise that a primarily vegetable dish with salt cod and snails is king.
Aïoli versus Le Grand Aïoli
Quite simply, aïoli (a.k.a. le beurre de Provence) is an uber garlicky sauce similar in consistency to mayonnaise, usually made with a per-person ratio of 1 egg yolk, 4 fat garlic cloves, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. As Carrier explains, ‘an unctuous mayonnaise sauce plentifully endowed with the magic fire of pounded fresh garlic.”
Le Grand Aïoli, on the other hand, is a meal which celebrates all that is good about Provence. The dish is traditionally served warm; I would say hot but there are so many components to a good Grand Aïoli that it is next to impossible to get them on the platter at the same time.
Typically one finds a wide selection of both raw and cooked vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, poached salt cod, and snails. Many grand aïoli include lots more fish. This past weekend I made mine with snow peas, snap peas, artichokes, and fennel harvested from my own garden with carrots, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, new potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, beets, radishes, shrimp, halibut, clams, octopus, and salt cod.
Be sure to include a large variety of what is best in season. Most of the vegetables I used were cooked in salted water with the exception of the peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, and radishes. If I am making a huge batch I will par cook the vegetables ahead to allow me to spend more time to socialize with friends.
Le Grand Aïoli, like most Provencal dishes, is meant to be served to a large crowd. It is the perfect dish for parties because it is convivial and requires passing, sharing, and interaction. It is the perfect dish for finicky eaters due to the wide variety of ingredients used. Aïoli pairs flawlessly with most wines, even lighter-bodied reds.
Aïoli, for two
To paraphrase Robert Carrier: An unctuous mayonnaise plentifully endowed with lots of raw garlic.
- 4 cloves garlic
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 egg yolk
- 3 ounces olive oil
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
The traditional way to make Aïoli is to pound raw garlic in a mortar with coarse salt to it is a smooth paste. Add egg yolks them drip olive oil in until thick and emulsified like a mayonnaise. Season with pepper and lemon juice.
The non-traditional way is to put garlic, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and egg yolks in a food processor and add oil slowly with the motor running.
While both methods create a similar sauce, the traditional method results in a sauce with a far better consistency and provides a workout. The food processor way is certainly passable but the sauce is far stiffer.