Mortar and Pestle Garlic Aioli
My bible for life in the south of France is Richard Olney’s Lulu’s Provençal Table. It’s a book that not only chronicles the intuitive regional cooking and joie de vivre of Lucie “Lulu” Peyraud—matriarch of the legendary wine estate Domaine Tempier in Bandol—but also celebrates the importance of tradition and sharing “at table.” I’ve been fortunate to sit at Lulu’s table twice. The first time she was 95 years old and still swimming in the Mediterranean every day. The second time was last summer. At 100, I found her living a life less aquatic but every bit as spirited.Lulu and her daughter, Laurence, greeted us on the terrace under the shade of maritime pines where she’s hosted countless guests, from harvest lunches for her large family of seven children to intimate meals shared with dear friends like Alice Waters.Before lunch, Lulu led me into her kitchen to show me her collection of mortars and pestles. The largest white marble mortar, with a wooden pestle and four knob-like handles, was filled with aioli the color and texture of lemon curd. She said that the mortier came with the house, which her father inherited in 1917, and offered to Lulu and her husband, Lucien, in 1940. The edges of that mortar, rounded and chipped, spoke to more than a century of use making sauces like rouille and pistou—and aioli.The word aioli means “garlic oil,” and it’s a noun for both the mayonnaise-like sauce and the exuberant meal, or Le Grand Aioli, where the sauce is star. In her recipe, Lulu calls for a whole head of garlic, but I find that far too potent for my non-Provençal palate. I typically use just two cloves—sometimes more, especially in late spring when fresh bulbs from the new garlic crop arrive at my farmers market.It takes patience, and a few tries, to master making aioli with a mortar and pestle. I’ve learned to use a fine-tipped squeeze bottle to administer the oil in consistent drops at the start before an emulsion forms. Classic aioli contains no lemon juice or acid of any kind; the bite of garlic provides the sole counterpoint to the richness of the olive oil and egg yolks. The finished sauce is unctuous, thick, and velvety smooth—and adds immense flavor to anything you dunk in it.On that June day, Lulu served platters of steamed sweet potatoes, green beans, beets, artichokes, and carrots alongside boiled eggs and poached salt cod. She poured a 2015 Domaine Tempier Bandol rouge, slightly chilled, and kept her glass full throughout lunch. The rest of us coveted the estate’s legendary rosé at first, but soon switched to the red and noted how both were equally adept at mingling with all that garlic.This is a recipe for those who take pleasure in two things: the flavor of raw garlic and deliberate, meditative cooking. Beyond the superior quality of an aioli made in the mortar, to me, the tool has become more than a means to the end. Making aioli by hand gives me a rare moment of calm focus—a spiritual moment in the kitchen. And it’s cooking traditions like this, found the world over, that we must consciously preserve for generations to come.