Go beyond chips and salsa. Throw an aïoli tasting party and add a little je ne sais quoi to your next soirée.
There are many reasons to love aïoli. From the way it rolls off your tongue – EYE–yo-lee! – to the way it slips down your throat. From the accessibility of its ingredients – garlic, oil, eggs – to its stunning versatility.
When aïoli first showed up on the blackboards of bistros in Canada about a decade ago, it was served as an accompaniment to steamed vegetables, meat and fish. Today, we use it as a spread to jazz up our sandwiches, a dressing to turn potato salad into gourmet fare and a dip to make sinful treats such as French fries worth the calories.
Flavour-wise, variations abound. Google aïoli, and you'll get a million recipes ranging from citrus, herbal and nut-based to chipotle, truffle and wasabi. Walk into a specialty food shop, and you'll find jars of aïoli lining the condiment shelves.
This seemingly simple concoction is the source of heated debate. When historians write that it is likely a Roman sauce, the people of Provence ignore the memo. Although aïoli is made in other parts of France, Spain and Italy, Provence claims it as its own, a cornerstone of Provençal cuisine.
Then, traditionalists battle modernists about the way the sauce should be made. "With a mortar and pestle!" the former group cries, whereas the latter roll their eyes and reach for a whisk or food processor.
Sparks also fly when discussing ingredients. Can a sauce be called aïoli if it contains eggs?
The dispute arose when, after centuries of using only garlic and oil, eggs were added to make the emulsification process easier. It worked, and today eggs are found in most recipes, but this is where the slippery slope to mayonnaise began. Egg yolks are essential to mayo, which is also an emulsification containing oil, lemon juice or vinegar, and sometimes a dash of mustard.
There is no place for an egg in aïoli, a Provençal purist will tell you. Aïoli and mayonnaise are not one and the same. Interestingly, there is dissention around the issue even in France. In an email, François Millo, co-author of Provence Food and Wine: The Art of Living, photographer and general manager of the Provence Wine Council, writes, "For non-Provençals, aïoli may be a variation of mayonnaise – we call this Parisian aïoli – but true Provençals know better."
Some true Canadians, such as culinary super-star chef Mark McEwan, disagree. In fact, the Food Network judge, restaurateur and cookbook author scoffs at the idea that up until recent years most boomers had never heard of the sauce. "If you had heard of Hellmann's mayonnaise, you had heard of aïoli," he says. "In North America, we think something is exotic, but it's something structurally the same. It's a language issue mostly."
McEwan doesn't buy into the traditionalist's view that olive oil and only olive oil must be used. His gourmet grocery store, McEwan, sells small tubs of freshly made aïoli in a variety of flavours, all of which feature lighter oils. "I prefer canola," he explains. "You want a light layering of flavours so you get a good balance."
Chef Alex Chen, who heads up Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver, takes a more diplomatic approach. "The characteristics of an aïoli should reflect the characteristics of the chef," he says, "but it should pay homage to Provence and evoke the cuisine of the sun." Aïoli is a summertime dish, he adds, so his restaurant starts offering it around this time of year.
Copyright 2017 ZoomerMedia Limited