On Alioli

Islam has five pillars that form the basis of the religion Shadah, Salat, Zakat, Swan and Haj. Catalans have four pillars that form the basis of their food; alioli, samfaina, picada and sofregit.
Alioli is a sauce that seems to be older than the hills itself. There are rumours of it origins being in Ancient Egypt and it is strikingly similar to Lebanese Toum. It is simply all (garlic ) and oli (oil) with some salt added.
Using a large mortar and pestle you crush the cloves of garlic until they are a fine paste, add a couple of pinches of salt and then start stirring with the pestle while adding the oil in a slow dribble. The oil should emulsify with the garlic and salt and create mayonnaise like consistency.
This, dear reader, almost never happens.
The reality of the situation is that 99 times out of 100 you end up with a curdled bowl of mashed garlic, oil and salt. You can blame the day (too humid/not humid enough), the fact that you were stirring too fast or too slow, you had the wrong spoon, Barca lost the semi-final and you are too sad to stir, or that it can only been done properly using your Pyrenean Mountain Grandmother’s mortar and pestle. It is fiendishly difficult.
I have been reliably informed by someone who cannot cook at all that it’s all in the action of the wrist. There is an optimum stirring speed that helps to emulsify the mixture. No one, however, can tell me what that speed is.
I have seen alioli successfully made like this twice; once in Barcelona by a friend who poured miniscule amounts of oil stirring very slowly and steadily and once at the trial Catalan cooking class by Bea’s sous chef Mark who poured the oil in steadily while stirring furiously accompanied by my shrieks of ,”Oh my God it’s actually working!”
Most of time alioli is made with an egg yolk as a garlic mayonaise. You crush a couple of cloves of garlic in a dry mortar and pestle, add a pinch of salt, an egg yolk and then stir the oil adding it in a slow and steady stream. If it curdles then pour the mixture into a bowl, wash the mortar and pestle and, after drying it very thoroughly, add an egg yolk and slowly dribble in the oil while stirring. Mix in the curdled egg and oil slowly once the second one starts to emulsify.
A still easier way to do this is to use either a balloon whisk or a blender using the same process as above. The real cheat’s way is to take a jar of mayonnaise and stir in some crushed garlic and a couple of strands of saffron, but I am sure you would never dream of doing such a thing.
Catalans use alioli as an all season sauce for any kind of savoury. It accompanies patatas bravas, grilled meat or vegetables, you can use it when making any kind of rice dish, put it on top of fish and grill the top until it forms a crust or in fideua either as an accompaniment or flamed grilled.
As a British person using alioli it is advisable to remember that everyone in the whole of Catalonia almost always reeks of garlic so even a visitor very quickly becomes immune to the smell. The same cannot be said of the UK and while you can spend the entire next day alternating between eating bunches of parsley and Fisherman’s Friends your garlic breath won’t go away entirely. If you have an interview the next day either for a new job or a potential Mr/Miss Right Now it would be advised to go easy on the all. The exception to this would be if the interviewer is Catalan in which case they will wonder why you remind them of home so much.

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9 responses to “On Alioli

  1. Near impossible to do with a pestle and mortar, for me at least. Jeez, I’m insecure enough without having egg and garlic based sauces mocking and taunting me with their (side) splitting ways. Mini food processor, works every time.

  2. Honestly it’s not that hard with the egg. It just takes some practice. Now without the egg it is nigh on impossible.

  3. Good information. I love to try new thing. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I too have abandoned the pestle and mortar for a lot of things from grinding spices to mixing pastes. The mythical wrist action is so often beyond me. It’s one of the few occasions that I prefer an electric alternative – spice grinders, mixers etc.

  5. With the egg, I found it straightforward. Having seen the drama of making the non-egg version, at the trial catalan cooking class, I might give that version a miss! xx

  6. Alioli is surely just ‘aioli’ spelled wrong isn’t it?

  7. Kavey: I think most of the drama was created by me shrieking in astonishment.

    Yes James. Just as ‘pa’ is ‘pan’ spelled wrong and ‘vi’ is ‘vino’ spelled wrong.

  8. Now that we are on the subject of spelling, note that the correct Catalan spelling is actually “allioli” [as Colman Andrews says ‘the name is the recipe’. Alioli is the Spanish spelling [obviously derived from Catalan]. Not really sure why you’re using the Spanish spelling to refer to a Catalan sauce on a site devoted to Catalan cooking written in English…

  9. Catalan cooking in Barcelona is done both in Castillian and in Catalan. I will often use either or both Timb.