In praise of mayonnaise

After last week’s hollandaise disaster, I approached the challenge of mastering the art of mayo with trepidation. Luckily, the sauce is served cold, which makes it significantly easier to create than its creamy cousin. As with hollandaise, egg yolks are used as emulsifiers, only this time rather than melted butter, the sauce is made with oil. While mayo can easily be made in a food processor, Julia Child advocates doing it by hand with a whisk “as part of your general mastery of the egg yolk”.

A life without mayonnaise would be infinitely duller, and mealtimes significantly less joyful. I have no shame in asking for it at restaurants, even those garlanded with Michelin stars, and am equally happy with a miniature pot of Hellmann’s or Heinz as I am when some poor sous chef has been asked to whip it up behind the scenes at warp speed. For me there is no finer accompaniment to roast potatoes, and the Dutch have long celebrated the glorious union of chips and mayo.

Mayonnaise could be named after Charles de Lorraine, duke of Mayenne

The origins of the sauce are unclear. A recipe for ‘poulets en mayonnaise’ appears in André Viards culinary encyclopaedia, Le Cuisiner Impérial, in 1806. This early incarnation was a velouté made with gelatin, vinegar and egg yolks, and was more akin to an aspic than the silky sauce we know today. In 1808, France’s first food critic, Alexandre Laurent Grimond de la Reynière, published a recipe for ‘bayonnaise’ (named after the French city of Bayonne – better known for its ham), which was also an aspic of sorts. Flamboyant gourmand de la Reynière described the sauce as “the most worthy ornament of poultry and fish salads”.

Another theory is that the sauce is named after Mahón, the capital of Menorca, which explains why it has historically been called ‘mahonnaise’. Yet another belief is that it is named in honour of Charles de Lorraine, duke of Mayenne, who ate a plate of chicken and mayo before being defeated in the Battle of Arques. As last meals go he could have done a lot worse… Spanish aïoli, which includes an indecent amount of garlic, predates the French version, while the fish-friendly tartare sauce is simply mayo with hard boiled egg yolks, gherkins, capers and parsley.

Homemade mayo is much sunnier in colour than the shop-bought versions

The first difference you notice about homemade mayo compared to shop-bought jars is the striking contrast in colour. While the latter tends to be swan white, homemade versions are much deeper in hue – mine was sunshine yellow. The more golden the egg yolks, the brighter yellow the mayo. The oil you use plays a vital role in the taste of the sauce. Julia advocates using olive oil, but the flavour is so assertive it can end up overpowering the mayo. The milder sunflower oil acts as an ideal neutral base that can be topped up with extra virgin olive oil at the end.

As with hollandaise, you’ll need a strong arm and a steely reserve to see the sauce through. It’s relatively simple to make – all you need to do is whisk three egg yolks until frothy then add in the oil drop by drop until it begins to thicken. Once the sauce starts to take shape, the oil can be added more liberally. When you’re happy with the consistency, all that’s needed to finish it off is a tablespoon of white wine vinegar or lemon juice, a teaspoon of mustard powder and a generous pinch of salt.

I added a touch too much mustard powder, and ended up with a punchier mayo than anticipated, but the heat helped balance out the richness of the sauce. To pair with it, I made some double-cooked French fries, which I devoured disconcertingly quickly. Having failed so dismally in my attempt to make hollandaise, I now feel somewhat redeemed. That’s the joy of cooking – there’s always another chance to turn things around, you’ve just got to pick yourself up, put your apron back on and get the hell back in the kitchen.

Published by lucyelizabethshaw

I'm a globetrotting wine writer by day and gluttonous food blogger by night. Having once written a wine blog that I dearly miss, in 2020 I will attempt to master the art of French cooking with a little help from Julia Child, having been inspired to do so after watching Nora Ephron's fantastically funny and supremely comforting Julie and Julia. Come and join me on my culinary journey...

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