Aïoli is the name of both a sauce and the dish which it accompanies. Accompanies is perhaps the wrong word. The sauce, for many, is the raison d’être of the dish, and the dish itself not just a meal but an occasion. The French word génial (meaning inspired, having its own genius) seems made for the atmosphere created by this wonderful dish.
Properly speaking it is an aïoli garni - a garlic mayonnaise, made with the best local olive oil, with boiled salt cod (previously soaked to get rid of the salt), boiled artichokes, beetroots, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, green beans all served warm - the selection of cooked vegetables is personal. At Domaine Tempier, Lulu Peyraud, a famous Provencal cook,included sweet potatoes, for example, and tomatoes cooked sur la braise (on a wood fire). Very often she added a bowl of poulpe confit (octopus, stewed in red wine with onions and garlic). At the end of the harvest, with everyone relaxing round a table outside, beaucoup de mortiers de sauce (a good many mortars full of sauce) are happily consumed.
If you want to make an aïoli and can get salt cod, allow about 150 g (5 oz) per person. In the markets of Provence two kinds are sold - morue salée et séchée is the traditional salted and dried fish, hard as a board, which can be kept for months and must be soaked in water for 48 hours before cooking, and morue salée, only salted, which needs soaking for 24 hours. In both cases change the water at least 3 or 4 times during the soaking. Poach the fish in fresh water for about 20 minutes and serve, like the vegetables, warm.
It works very well with fresh fish too, cod or other firm white fish.
If all the vegetables and fish are to come to the table warm, not over-cooked and at the same time, you need plenty of pots and some extra pairs of hands to drain them at the right moment.
The addition of boiled meat and/or a boiled chicken make this into a grand aïoli. Hard-boiled eggs are often included, maybe some soaked and boiled chick peas, and sometimes, cooked snails.
Someone in Provence told me she remembered seeing women pickers gathering snails into their aprons as they went through the vines. The snails would then be kept in a cool, dark container and starved to rid them of any impurities, ready to be cooked and added some fifteen to twenty days later, to an aïoli or used to make a cagaoulade, a very local word for a kind of casserole of snails with little bits of bacon, garlic, local white wine, and in some cases, tomatoes.
"The magnificent shining gold ointment which is the sauce is often referred to as the beurre de Provence" (Provençal butter) says Elizabeth David in French Provincial Cooking. As this suggests, this sauce is stiff, not pourable.
It is made by pounding garlic in a pestle and mortar (using a machine seems to make it taste bitter) to produce a paste, stirring in egg yolks, then, as for a mayonnaise, adding the best possible (cold-pressed virgin) olive oil, drop by drop at first, stirring all the while.
As for proportions, Elizabeth David suggests 16 cloves of garlic, 3 egg yolks and 500 ml (nearly a pint) of olive oil for eight people. If you are having a larger party, you might like to know that Mme Peyraud used three heads of garlic to 10 egg yolks for 30 people.
Lemon juice, salt and pepper are used to season to taste at the end. It is not difficult to make but requires one to be unhurried.
In one version a thick slice of day-old bread is soaked in milk, squeezed and incorporated into the garlic paste before adding the eggs and olive oil. Some people think this stabilises the sauce.
Aïoli is such a good sauce (for garlic lovers) that it is often served with other boiled fish, mixed into soups at the table, mixed into gratins of chickpeas or other vegetables, or served with pot-au-feu. Really, you cannot have too much of a good thing!