Samui Wining & Dining
Magic Mayo

Mayonnaise has come out of the closet in all its many flavours and hues!

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The story goes that at one time mayonnaise was made exclusively in England. And that the Spanish had developed a craving for it; Mexicans in particular. In fact, the Titanic was carrying 12,000 gallons of the condiment for delivery in Vera Cruz, which was scheduled to be the next port of call for the great liner after New York City. The Mexican people were eagerly awaiting delivery and were desperados at their loss. They were so distraught that a national day of mourning was declared, which Mexicans still observe today, on the 5th of May every year. And this day is universally known as ... Sinko de Mayo.

        But, linguistic joking apart, mayonnaise has come a mighty long way since its original use – as a kind of food disinfectant! And if not actually its primary function, then this was certainly the secondary purpose of the various sauces and dressings that abounded in the days before refrigeration. It’s well-recorded that in Roman times no dish was complete without a strongly-flavoured sauce. The main intention back then seemed to be to disguise the ‘natural’ taste of food – usually with the aim of overpowering its dubious freshness! The Roman gourmet, Apicius, added a footnote to one of his 1st century recipes, “Make sure the sauce is plentiful then nobody will know quite what they are eating.” And he was being quite serious.

       One problem with ‘mayo’ is that no historian can be certain when it first appeared. It’s simple to make, being a combination of eggs, oil and vinegar. And it’s known that the Romans used such a mixture. It’s also recorded that, several centuries before this, the Persians favoured a similar recipe, but mixed with astringent herbs and spices that turned it a deep indigo colour. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers brought mayo back to Europe, where it would seem that it then sank without a trace.

       However, it suddenly bounced into popularity when the French captured Minorca, in 1756. Le Duc de Richelieu celebrated with a victory feast. But the kitchen had run out of cream and was forced to use a mix of mayo (unknown and unnamed at the time) instead. He’d just overthrown the city of Mahon and thus conferred the name of ‘mahonnaise’ upon this wonderful ‘new’ condiment. The Duke was a socialite and bon vivant, with the added reputation of expecting his guests to dine in the nude. And, upon his (fully-clothed) return to France, both he and his mahonnaise received their respective hero’s welcomes.

       But there’s a significant number of people today who give mayo the cold-shoulder, seeing little culinary purpose in a dollop of greasy and relatively flavourless condiment. They’re very much in the minority, however. Because it’s not only used all over the world but has emerged with various national identities, too.

       The secret, you see, is to begin with mayonnaise. Meaning that, in itself, it’s not much to shout about. But stir-in finely chopped garlic and then it’s known as aioli and that’s the form it takes in France. In South American countries, it’s known as mayonesa and they use lime-juice instead of vinegar, giving it a far more piquant flavour. In Belgium, they tend to slop it on most things; a particular favourite being on top of French fries. It’s emerged in Russia, too, but under a different guise. ‘Russian Salad’ is basically small, cooked and chopped vegetables (potatoes, carrots, peas, etc.) but absolutely so drowned in mayo that all the veggies take on a neutral pastel hue.

        But nowhere in the world are they as nuts on mayo as in Japan. Traditional Japanese mayonnaise contains soya oil and a lot of rice vinegar, making it thin and sharp in flavour. But let’s hear it for all things modern, and the more ‘Americanized’ the better – such as the imported jars that now abound. You’ll even discover entire restaurants dedicated to the stuff, such as Tokyo’s Mayonnaise Kitchen, where mayo-margarita cocktails, mayo ice-cream and mayo spaghetti are the order of the day.

         So let’s put all these whistles and bells and the trendiness to one side. Let’s forget about sensationalism and take a look at mayonnaise from a gourmet’s point of view. No, don’t scoff; it’s possibly the most versatile condiment ever created. Certainly Ferran Adrià at his Michelin 3-star restaurant, el Bulli, seemed to think well of it as, flavoured, flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen then deep-fried, his crunchy mayo was quite a hit. The secret is to start with a mayonnaise base and then tune it via various additions so that it enhances and complements the dish it goes with. The approach is to use it as a sauce, as the French do, rather than the more convenience-oriented way of binding various ingredients together.

         You could make your own mayo-base; it’s not difficult. All it needs is an oil, an acidic ingredient and eggs. But just with these ingredients alone there are a hundred variations. You can use the whole egg, the white only or the yolk only. Try different oils: olive oil, sunflower oil, even peanut oil. Use lemon or orange juice instead of vinegar and thin it a bit to give it a more refined taste. It’s guaranteed that by using just about any of these methods it will taste worlds apart from the store-bought alternatives and contain no preservatives or additives, either.

         But, for the sake of convenience, first find a brand of mayo that you like (many are too sweet). Then, create your ‘sauce’ on the spot as and when you need to. For example, a fish dish goes well with the garlic aioli, as will a mayo made with herbs such as watercress or rocket-leaf, chives or parsley leaves. And a mild chili or roasted pepper blend is terrific with meat.

         Experiment! Dijon mustard is a delicious addition. Try a pinch of saffron or a couple of teaspoons of chopped pickles. Add wasabi or soy sauce. Tabasco or other hot sauces. Crushed almonds or peanuts, especially along with soy sauce. Grated citrus zest, horseradish, ginger, capers, anchovies, olives ... even chopped truffles, if you just happen to have any lying around.

         When it comes to mayonnaise, then the world’s your oyster (try them, too, with herb and garlic mayo thinned with lemon juice)! And you’ll also discover something else along the way. After dabbling with your own mayos, you’ll never want to touch the stuff in jars again.

 

 

Rob De Wet


 


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