Jason Goodwin teaches us how to make the perfect mayonaise, while explaining why he's jinked to fail each time and why we must be the ones to keep this great condiment alive.
There is a certain type of bread, traditional to Crete, made with a starter of crushed chickpeas and infused with bay leaves, which nuns are forbidden to bake. It’s baked only by old women, at night, burning leather shoelaces on the fire to disguise the smell. It’s very hard to make, this eftazimo.
Ludwig Salvator, a cousin of the Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, thought you needed a black-handled knife, a red blanket and a holy book. I did manage once to produce a respectable loaf, but, on reflection, I dropped it from my collection of Ottoman-inspired recipes, Yashim Cooks Istanbul. The bread attracts the Evil Eye.
I have come to suspect that the same is true of mayonnaise. Eftazimo is something of an acquired taste, but golden, garlicky mayonnaise is summer on a spoon and it’s not that easy to make, either.
Some people can. You hand them a bowl and gesture vaguely towards eggs and, in five minutes flat, they come back with the emulsion. Meanwhile, I suffer from a jinx. Some people do – witchcraft at some level is the only explanation.
Two eggs at room temperature, Maldon sea salt, Dijon mustard, about a pint of oil and a lemon. Crack the eggs and separate the yolks. Tip the yolks into a bowl, break them with a spoon, stir in a pinch of salt and half a teaspoonful of mustard and beat, adding the oil drop by drop.
I started my mayonnaise-making summer course with a battery of whizzers and whisks. Once, I tried making mayonnaise in a stainless-steel bowl, with the result that it never even began to set. Later, I absorbed an entire bottle of homemade, deep-green, single-estate Tuscan olive oil given to us by an Italian friend into an eggy emulsion that looked like a stagnant pond.
‘Nobody wants French food anymore, least of all the French themselves’
Masters of Mayo tell me that the secret is to keep things simple, move slowly and use vegetable oil, at least in the early stages. Mayonnaise can be made with a wooden spoon and a pudding bowl, held to the table with a damp cloth.
If – and when – it splits, crack a fresh yolk into a clean bowl and start over with the split mixture, drop by drop.
It’s not for me alone that I am making mayonnaise, nor for the family, or friends. It’s for the French, who invented it, in a tribute to their fragile culinary genius. Their healthy sense of economy provides the discipline that raises cookery to an art. An omnivorous peasant people at heart, like the Chinese, they hate waste and have thought long and hard about how to make the best of every part of whatever grows or grunts. They know how to manage young peas, old trotters and tripe; what to do with gizzards or eggs.
Or so it used to be. Once Carême laid down the rules for sauce, which Escoffier enlarged, the reputation of French cooking rose to stupendous heights, like a soufflé, acclaimed by everyone from Talleyrand to the Duke of Wellington and Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia. Now, it has collapsed, apparently, squashing the laurels on which the French were resting.
It seems that nobody wants French food any more, least of all the French themselves – France is McDonalds’ second-most-profitable market Europe.
I had two of the most disgusting meals I have ever eaten on consecutive nights, when driving to the South of France. One featured tinned scallops on pasta, the other a pie stuffed with soft, pimpled duck skin. Only on the third night did we have a delicious confit in a Gascon restaurant run by a gay couple, both English.
That’s why I am persevering with the mayonnaise. I think it might be up to us to keep the flame alive.