The British painter Howard Hodgkin, when asked on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” what he would like as his luxury, responded, slowly and carefully: “A permanent supply of mayonnaise.” A man after my own heart—and stomach. It baffles me that Hodgkin has never painted his choice, in one gorgeous, yellow brushstroke.
Mayonnaise is one of the greatest of culinary inventions. Along with its warmer brother, hollandaise, it is an emulsion: where sturdy whisking forces egg yolks to marry with oil or butter. It can be made in a food processor—but the result will look closer to thick household paint than “ointment-like”, Elizabeth David’s description.
Mind you, David suggested beating mayonnaise with a wooden spoon, and insisted on using only olive oil—a fruity French oil from Provence, at that. With all due deference, neither of these instructions sit happily with me. There is always the risk of an emulsion separating when beating with the single, flat surface of a wooden spoon—it’s more romantic than practical. As for olive oil, I would only use it solo in a Provençal aïoli—a mayonnaise so bullied by garlic that it needs the strong flavour of a very good olive oil to stand up to the alliums.
What I have always loved about mayonnaise is how, over decades—centuries, even—this versatile vehicle has given birth to so many other delicious concoctions. The best-known of its offspring is the French sauce tartare, famously good with deep-fried, crumbed or battered fish. Many versions exist, some of which have debatable ingredients. Mine uses finely chopped gherkins, capers, parsley and tarragon, nothing more. I never add raw chives, shallots or spring onions, as some do, because if left for a while their sour juices can react badly with an egg-based sauce.
Closely related to tartare is sauce gribiche, which remains one of my favourites and relies on the taste of cooked egg. It is an excellent tracklement to boiled meats, particularly tongue, as well as steamed fish, such as hake or sea bass, served warm. It’s also an interesting alternative dressing for a warm potato salad. To make it, add finely chopped hard-boiled eggs and capers—not gherkins, despite the insistence of many recipes—to the mayonnaise, together with parsley, and a little chervil if you can find some. I like to add a touch of mustard too.
Aïoli, the “golden ointment”, most famously accompanies the great Provençal salt-cod platter known as “le grand aïoli”, garnished with regional vegetables, boiled eggs and, occasionally, snails. A couple of spoonfuls are also used as a thickener when making bourride: it’s quickly whisked into a hot, saffron-scented fish broth in which a fillet of fish has just been poached. To make aïoli, garlic—three to four cloves should be sufficient—needs to be brutally crushed, then worked to a paste with sea-salt flakes, using the back of a heavy knife or a pestle and mortar. The paste is mixed with egg yolks before following the basic mayonnaise recipe below, though omitting the mustard. When made with juicy, new-season garlic in early summer, the result will be particularly pungent.
My long-time, fail-safe recipe for mayonnaise uses two large egg yolks, two teaspoons of smooth Dijon mustard, about 300ml sunflower oil, 150ml extra virgin olive oil, salt and white pepper, and the juice of about half a lemon. Put the egg yolks in a roomy bowl, and mix in the mustard and some seasoning. Beginning slowly, whisk the ingredients together, then gradually trickle in the sunflower oil in a thin stream. As the mixture begins to get very thick, add a little lemon juice. Continue beating, adding the oil a little faster now, while also increasing the speed of the whisk. Once all the sunflower oil has been exhausted, add some more lemon juice and then begin incorporating the olive oil. When this is used up, add a final squeeze of lemon juice to taste, and correct the seasoning. The result should shine, and have a wobbly look when spooned from the bowl.
It’s the exquisite blandness of mayonnaise that I adore almost more than anything. In these times—when cookery seems to demand so much punch and flavour, so much absurd invention—my little lidded pot of mayonnaise sits in the fridge, a simple, reassuring balm.
I like a sturdy whisk in stainless steel—but one where the ball is made of thin wire, the better to incorporate air. In Britain, both Divertimenti and John Lewis sell the right kind of thing.
For a straightforward, everyday mayonnaise, I’d recommend a mix of sunflower oil and Alziari olive oil from Nice—order it online at alziari.com.fr. For an aïoli, the most pungent, fruity, flavoursome oil I know is Maussane-les Alpilles, made near St Rémy de Provence, and available online at moulin-cornille.com.