An Aïoli Kind of Summer
Words, images & food by Harriet Davidson
It was sitting in the port of Cassis when this dish really struck something in me. I was sipping on a pastis and looked over at the food that had just arrived at the table next to me. Aïoli. I was about to embark on a walk through the Calanque and got carried away laying on a rock under the setting sun after an afternoon swim so never got back to experience this plate that had deeply intrigued me. But it was on my mind.
It’s often not until you find yourself in the part of the world a dish comes from that you really come to understand it. And often it’s something you’ve been eating for years. It’s from eating a dish in the place it was born that deepens the context of food, and your connection to it. The list of dishes or ingredients this has happened with lately, having just moved to Marseille, is a long one: panisse, pastis, pissaladière, even pizza, and then there’s harissa, tapenade and oui, aïoli.
The name says it all - ‘ai’ coming from the Provençal word for garlic and ‘oli’ for oil. These two holy ingredients unite using egg yolks to bind them into the garlicky-spiked sauce. ‘Aïoli’ refers both to the condiment as well as the dish, sometimes referred to as ‘aïoli Provençal’. Since that day in Cassis, I’ve sat down to a few (plus some) aïoli, often sitting in the sunshine that beats down onto the Old Port of Marseille. The little bowl of aïoli comes surrounded with boiled or steamed vegetables and seafood – often salt cod, prawns, sea snails or mussels.
It’s really the most perfect Australian summer, Australian Christmas, Australian holiday dish. A perfect way to dress up or use up prawns, and a perfect reprieve – from cooking and from ham. Serve it on those long and slow days between Christmas and New Years. Maybe making the aïoli before you go to the beach ready to come back to, sandy and slightly sun-drunk. Plonk the chilled aïoli down on the table with a crisp, cold bottle of something white and textural, and spend the afternoon with no concept of time as you run your foraged goods from the ground and the sea through this lush, velvety, garlicky sauce.
I see this dish as the vehicle to bringing people together at the table in the best kind of way – through beautiful produce needing very little done to it, and through food you pick, scoop, slice and snack on for hours and hours. And eventually, in true traditional Marseille style, crawl into those crisp white linen sheets for an afternoon nap.
Use whatever vegetables are in season – here you’ll often see it with fennel, zucchini, artichokes, potatoes, green beans and carrots. Traditionally, the aïoli is made with a mortar and pestle but if you find yourself at your friend’s family’s beach house (lucky you) sans mortar and pestle, a fork and small mixing bowl works a treat.
There are few small but vital steps with making aïoli that you’ll want to keep an eye on to avoid it splitting – namely, use a fork not a whisk, and be sure to add the few drops of water to allow the eggs to take more of the olive oil instead of splitting (thank you to the wonderful Danielle Alvarez for this life-changing piece of advice).
I hope this recipe might bring you and your summer a touch of the magic of Marseille, bringing with it it’s blue skies and blue seas. Here’s to long, languid lunches and salty-skin summer naps to end your 2022. Happy holidaying.
1 large garlic clove
Pinch of salt
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Vegetables and seafood of your choice (read: whatever the grounds and seas of wherever you find yourself are feeding you). A few great options:
For the aïoli:
Crush the garlic clove in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of salt, which will help to grind it to a paste. If there’s no mortar and pestle in sight, simply crush and finely mince your garlic then sprinkle a small pinch of salt over it and use your knife to smoosh it into your chopping board creating a paste. Place this into a small mixing bowl.
Add your egg yolks and give the mixture a light whisk to combine.
Slowly start drizzling in your olive oil while continuously whisking with a fork in one direction, a few drops at a time until it starts to emulsify and form a solid-looking paste. At this stage (important!) add a few drops of water before continuing to slowly stream in the remainder of your olive oil, whisking as you go. You’ll need to start with a slow, light stream until it’s well-combined before steadily streaming in the rest.
Place the aïoli in the fridge while you prepare your vegetables and seafood. This will also help it to solidify a little if it’s on the runnier side (best not to keep it overnight with the raw egg).
For the vegetables:
Put a medium-sized pot of water on to boil and salt it well – you want it quite salty to permeate and season the vegetables as they cook.
Cut your vegetables into about bit-sized pieces (if you’re using carrots and potatoes peel them but keep them whole). Once the water has come to a boil, proceed to blanch each prepped vegetable separately until tender, using a small sharp knife to test each one as you go (about 3 to 5 minutes for each vegetable). Pull each vegetable out of the water and place on a rack to drain and cool while you continue cooking the remainder of the vegetables.
Prepare any seafood that you’re using – here I’ve used prawns, peeling the body but keeping the head and tail on.
Boil your eggs for 7 minutes. Cool, peel and cut in half.
For the fun part (assembling):
Place your aïoli in a ramekin in the middle of a serving platter and arrange your cooked vegetables and prepared seafood around it. I love this part – playing with colours as I decide what should go where. Serve with a few lemon cheeks, and perhaps some fresh crunchy bread.