“Tell me how to make allioli,” I implored the olive oil seller in the Mercat Sant-Josep, Barcelona's famous Boqueria.
“You English can't make it. Even most Catalans can't make it,” she sniffed.
I switched to my limited Catalan, hoping to stir nationalist pride. “Si us plau, senyora. Jo no soc anglès. La versiò francesa amb ous no és suficient. Si ho ruïna, puc fer servir el allioli negat per fregir el peix.” The French version with eggs won't do. If I ruin it, I can use the broken allioli for frying fish–and I'm not English, damn it.
She relented and fetched down an ancient mortar and pestle. “Prométeme només fer-ho amb la mà i morter!” Only ever with a mortar and pestle–on your word.
Making allioli, one of the keys of Catalan cooking, is not easy. You will fail as I have failed, time and time again. Even wrinkled old grandmothers, their backs bent with years of making it, fail. They blame it on the weather, or the wind, or the noise from the children in the yard, but they don't waste it.
French aïoli is made like mayonnaise, with eggs, lemon juice and even water to emulsify the garlic and oil and keep it in suspension. Catalan allioli, I was told, contains exactly four ingredients: garlic, the very best olive oil you can buy, coarse salt and prayers. When you break a French aïoli, you can start with a clean bowl and an egg yolk and re-mount the broken sauce. Catalan allioli is impossible to repair.
Nevertheless, when you've succeeded and you have a pile of vibrantly yellow, thick dip with trails from the motion of the pestle, it is almost indescribable. Spread on roasted vegetables or grilled meat (especially lamb), it seems made for strong flavors. Stirred into suquet de peix, Catalan fish stew, it provides the heat required to unify the various fish together. It's also meant to be when spread thinly on grilled bread and topped with sweet roasted piquillo peppers.
Ingredients and Equipment:
3 large cloves garlic with no green shoot in the middle
Pinch of salt
1 cup finest extra-virgin olive oil (Arbequina from Catalunya is traditional)
Mortar and pestle
Eyedropper or small-mouthed plastic squeeze bottle
1. Peel the garlic and place in the mortar with the salt.
2. Grind the garlic until it is completely puréed. Not a single wisp of fiber should be left.
3. Add a drop–a single drop–of olive oil and grind until it has disappeared. Always grind in one direction only; don't reverse the pestle.
4. Add another drop and grind until it has disappeared.
5. Continue until you have a true emulsion going; at this point add oil in the thinnest stream you can manage, grinding incessantly.
6. When you see oil just start to puddle on top of the emulsion, stop. If you continue, you will break the emulsion. If what you have looks like mayonnaise, you have succeeded. If it is still mostly liquid, you have broken the allioli.
7. If you have succeeded, put the allioli in its serving dish immediately and let it rest at room temperature for thirty minutes to mellow; it will be much, much too strong to eat immediately.
If you break the allioli, don't feel bad; I myself have only a 50-60% success rate, and Senyora Pla at the olive oil booth only succeeded that day with muttered repetitions of Déu vos salva, Maria, plena de gràcia. You can use it as the start of a dish, especially strongly flavored vegetables like tomatoes or peppers, or as the base of a fish dish.