Proof that the simplest things in life are often the best, Emma Knowles reveals the secret to making authentic alioli, which contains two key ingredients - garlic and oil.
All-ee-ohlee. We're talking about alioli; the Spanish version as opposed to the French aïoli. So how much difference is there between the two? You could say that alioli is the less polite relative of aïoli, and we mean that in the nicest possible way. With its pungent garlic flavour combined with fruity extra-virgin olive oil, it's not for the faint-hearted.
Alioli has a long history. It is mentioned in the writings of Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), a Roman procurator on the Catalan coast for a year who favoured garlic for medicinal purposes. He wrote that when garlic is "beaten up in oil and vinegar it swells up in foam to a surprising size". While not definitive, it's not hard to make the leap from here to the Catalan classic we know today.
The name of this pillar of traditional Spanish cuisine derives from its ingredients. The Catalan word for garlic is 'all', 'i' is for 'and', and you can probably guess the name for oil - 'oli'. As far as purists are concerned, it's only these two ingredients, and perhaps a pinch of salt, that go into a true alioli although, truth be told, almost everyone uses a little egg yolk to assist the emulsification of the oil - and a little lemon doesn't go astray either.
In the traditional method, garlic is pounded in a mortar with salt until completely mashed and smooth. Olive oil is then added, literally drop by drop, and pounded between each addition to emulsify. Needless to say, this requires a fair amount of elbow grease and a heavy-duty mortar and pestle is a must. No dinky little number is going to do the job here. The traditional Spanish version uses a wooden pestle, but they can be tricky to find. I found that a stone pestle worked just fine.
And so, to matters of taste. The amount of garlic used is, of course, up to the individual. In researching this article, I stumbled upon recipes calling for up to 10 cloves. And, while traditional recipes call for extra-virgin olive oil, many modern recipes call for a combination of extra-virgin and regular olive oils or (in a slightly wimpier version) even just light olive oil. It's really a case of suck it and see.
The final result is a thick, paste-like product. The test of the cook's skill is to be able to turn the mortar, containing the alioli, upside down without any of it falling out. Not that we'd recommend such a test. The best way to test it is to dig in. Serve it alongside fish or rice dishes. Or do as I have and add some smoked paprika and serve it with crisp deep-fried school prawns and a wedge or two of lemon.