I write this post whilst cruising at 36,000 feet above France after a short, but once again wonderful, visit to Nice. To be more precise, we stayed in Golfe-Juan, which is about 25km along the coast from Nice, right next door to Cannes. We regularly travel there to see an old friend who has lived on the Côte-d’Azur for many years and who always goes out of her way to make us sample local delicacies, of which there are so many. For example, the highlight of our stay is the trip we always take to Ventimiglia through the countless tunnels, across the Italian border, to enjoy an amazing dish of “spaghetti alle vongole” or clam spaghetti, at what has become one of our favourite restaurants: Colombo. It is run by a family of fishermen, and the fare they offer is incredible: the “calamari fritti” (fried calamari) are so light, the spaghetti sauce is to die for, their pizzas (or “pizze” in Italian) are simply divine, and this is before we even mention the incredible and creamy “tiramisù”. But I digress… we are here to talk about aïoli!
As an aside (sorry, another one!), completely unrelated to the main point of this article, Golfe-Juan was where Napoleon first came ashore after his return from Elba in March 1815. Commemorative plaques abound in the region. There is also a colourful annual celebratory event to mark what is the start of the Route Napoleon.
Anyway, I wanted to write a little about a dish that we enjoyed whilst we were here. I haven’t (to my knowledge) eaten Aïoli before. I had believed (rather naively as it turns out) that it was just garlic mayonnaise with a posh French name.
How wrong I was!
What’s in an Aïoli sauce?
Two words: “ail” (garlic) and “oli” (huile, or oil) best describe this provençale sauce praised by Frédéric Mistral, Nobel Prize winner in Literature. This famous poet even founded a newspaper called “Aïòli” in 1891. L”‘Aiòli” was established to defend and promote Occitan languages and literature.
“Aïoli, by its very nature, holds the warmth, strength and joy of the Provençal sun, but it also has a virtue: it keeps flies away. Those who do not love aïoli, those whose stomach turns at the thought of our oil and garlic, will keep their distance … “.
Although Aïoli is a sauce in its own right – from crushed garlic, Dijon mustard, egg yolk, olive oil and lemon juice, in Provence it can also describe an entire dish. It is traditionally made with a pestle and mortar. This dipping dish comprises boiled fish (usually salt cod), boiled vegetables (potatoes, green beans, carrots), and a boiled egg. All of the above are served with the aforementioned sauce. This isn’t the only recipe for Aïoli sauce. Indeed, as with all regional recipes, there are countless variations (don’t get me started about Bouillabaisse).
Le Grand Aïoli
‘Le Grand Aïoli’, to give the dish its proper name, is found on the menu of many restaurants in the South of France. However, we found ours pre-prepared by the local fishmonger. Ideally, a grand aïoli should feature at least six components. At nearly 8 euros per portion, for a shop-bought prepared meal it wasn’t cheap, but boy did it taste good. The sauce couldn’t have been more garlicky… so make sure you both have one if dining out romantically.
We ate ours “tiède” (lukewarm), but it can also be eaten at room temperature. If a boiled meal doesn’t sound like a treat to you, you might have a change of heart after eating Le Grand Aïoli.
Aïoli sauce can also be used as a dipping sauce in a fondue. It can be prepared 24 hours in advance. Probably perceived as a simple way to entertain, it definitely is a gastronomic celebration of Provençal cuisine. You can serve it with other vegetables. For example, cauliflower, courgettes, artichokes and tomatoes. The main dish is also often served with molluscs, crab claws and snails too.