When I was first asked to take part in a culinary tour of the Costa Brava in Spain, I thought they had the wrong guy. I’m a notorious picky eater and seafood is off my menu completely. I knew I’d enjoy myself, but I wanted to make sure my hosts didn’t feel as if they were wasting their time. As it turns out, this unique area of Spain is a hotbed of culinary awesomeness and I wasn’t only comfortable, I was in food heaven. One of the highlights though was leaving the table and entering the kitchen to learn for myself how to make a staple of Spanish cuisine, aioli.
First, you have to know that aioli is not flavored mayonnaise. I know, I know, I made the same mistake and was quickly corrected by my hosts. What you may have called aioli and what some restaurants may even sell and pinky swear to be aioli is not the real deal. A true, honest to goodness straight from the farmhouse aioli is simplicity at its finest: garlic, olive oil and salt. Don’t let these most base of European ingredients fool you though, the process of creating this heavenly condiment is more complex and more intense than you could ever imagine.
To create this Spanish staple, we were paired into teams and being the competitive bunch that we are, we instantly turned the experience into a personal grudge match. To say I’m competitive is a wee bit of an understatement. My partner and I nearly called it quits early on in our relationship due to a particularly feisty game of Risk. (and that is the reason why we haven’t played a board game in almost a decade) So I was determined, no, obsessed with making the best aioli. Luckily for me I was paired with a food and travel writer who is also a chef and baker – a queen of the culinary arts, Rachelle Lucas. I thought I was home safe.
Our chef instructor prepared his aioli first, to show us the process, the long process as it turns out. Using a mortar and pestle, yes that’s still how it’s done, you start crushing whole garlic cloves, mincing them into a paste. Then the fun, and by fun I mean grueling labor, begins. Over the span of thirty minutes or so copious, gallons it seemed, amounts of olive oil is added in slowly to allow the garlic to absorb the natural goodness.
My job was crusher and stirrer, Rachel was the pourer. Yeah, she lucked out. I was so focused on my dish, obsessed with its perfection everything else in the room disappeared. I fine tuned the art of crushing and mixing at the same time as Rachel furiously added heaps of olive oil, with some course salt thrown in every now and then.
My forearms ached, my shoulders cried out and my eyes teared as the room filled with the extraordinarily strong scent of garlic. Finally, my yellowish paste began to take shape. I looked up smiling at Rachelle, who returned my smile with a nod and a wink. We had it, I was sure of it. I called the instructor over who, through some sort of Spanish miracle, gave his seal of approval.
What stood in front of me was a thick paste in which the pestle could stand on its on. It’s amazing what a little garlic, olive oil and hard work can become – a true transformation into spicy yumminess. Spicy is also an understatement. As I gave the concoction a taste, I foolishly slathered my baguette with the aioli, not yet understanding its power. As I bit into the innocent bread my mouth erupted in fire and I grabbed the nearest water pitcher. Yes, aioli is delicious and a fantastic accompaniment to meats and breads, but definitely in moderation. At least the way I made it.
Later that week I had the opportunity to taste fresh aioli made in front of my eyes by a true master and while his spread resembled mine, he was somehow able to give it more depth, more flavor and less fire. And that’s what amazed me throughout my culinary adventures in Spain, the foods we were taught, the foods we think of as traditional and common really are traditional and common. I noticed aioli everywhere that week, the good stuff and not the fabricated mayo disasters we have here in the U.S.
So did we win the contest? No, sadly we did not. I’m convinced bribery was involved in some way, but I didn’t want to raise a ruckus. But what I did walk away with was a lot more valuable than a title; I learned how through food I can always relive my Costa Brava memories at home just by making a simple condiment for my friends and family.
Think you have what it takes to make your own Spanish style aioli? Below are the instructions we received from our chef instructor at I Cook It.
Try it out and let me know how you do.
Servings: Makes About 1 Cup
10 garlic cloves, peeled
Pinch of salt
Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
Place the garlic in a mortar along with the salt. Using a pestle, smash the garlic cloves to a smooth paste. (The salt stops the garlic from slipping at the bottom of the mortar as you pound it down.) Drop by drop, pour the olive oil into the mortar slowly as you continue to crush the paste with your pestle. Keep turning your pestle in a slow, continuous circular motion in the mortar. The drip needs to be slow and steady. Make sure the paste soaks up the live oil as you go. Keep adding the oil, drop by drop, until you have the consistency of a very thick mayonnaise. If your aioli gets too dense, add water to thin it out. This takes time – around 20 minute of slow motion around the mortar to create a fence, rich sauce.