Monday, 23 March 2009

Of spring days and mayonnaise

I'm glad I used to do a fair bit of bodybuilding in my twenties. You need a strong arms for making mayonnaise.

Early last year, I made my first allioli – the wonderful garlic mayo that heralds from Catalonia. The instructions came courtesy of Rick Stein's Mediterranean cookbook, and it was initially only intended as an experiment.

I like to try things once – so that I understand what the process is (before buying the ready-made version next time). I've tried houmous and taramasalata and tapenade for exactly that reason. Only tapenade has not been shop bought since.

Thus I tried my hand at allioli. But the thing was, it was so utterly gorgeous, that the experiment convinced me that I'd make it again. And again.

And now, this lunchtime, I've made my first mayonnaise proper. More instructions courtesy of Mr Stein. Two lovely egg yolks, with two teaspoons of white wine vinegar, half a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of dry mustard all plopped in a bowl with a damp cloth underneath to keep it from slipping. Take a whisk and gently break the yolks. Then start – extremely slowly – dripping in 300ml of oil (you can use sunflower oil, but I stick with virgin olive oil) and whisking it into the eggs, vinegar, salt and mustard.

The mixture doesn't get looser – it stiffens up: that's the hard bit and my bicep was groaning more than it has in years. But it's a glorious, smooth texture and a wonderful, bright yellow – reminiscent of the daffodils that are now in bloom. The taste ... well, the taste is like incredible.

It screams to me of sun, sea and squid on the Med – or chips in Amsterdam and Berlin. Nothing out of a jar, hauled down from a supermarket shelf, could ever taste of such things, of such memories.

So why do cooks and chefs claim so vociferously that mayonnaise is difficult to make? If you measure your ingredients carefully, take your time adding the oil and work those arm muscles, it's a doddle.

And such a process, when it produces something so special, can hardly be viewed as onerous.

Not, of course, that it should ever be pleasurable. At least that was my mother's view. I remember her intoning: "We eat to live – we don't live to eat". Technically correct, of course, but what she meant was to emphasise the role of food as fuel alone – don't be having any sensual pleasure from it.

Whether because of that attitude – or whether that attitude grew out of something else – my mother has never enjoyed cooking. She's worked hard at it – indeed, she's turned into an art form the ability to take two hours to prepare something that I could do in 30 minutes. She's always been dutiful in preparing food for her family – but then again, duty is A Good Thing. Pleasure is not.

And neither I nor my sister were ever taught to cook. We had to do chores in the kitchen – scraping new potatoes in the summer, prepping sprouts in the winter – and drying up. But we didn't get to actually try any cooking or baking. Mother also considered domestic science at school to be a complete waste of time and money, so I was hauled from those classes as quickly as possible.

It begs the question of where she imagined one learnt any basic culinary skills. By the time I left home, I had not a clue.

Perhaps it's the case throughout the UK?

Perhaps that's why celebrity chefs and cooks always make out that mayonnaise is so, so risky – so very difficult to get just right. Because such an awful lot of people in the UK can hardly do much more than pop a ready meal in the microwave?

I'm never sure whether I want to evangelise about food – or keep it as at least a partial secret. Perhaps that's what those chefs have decided – to retain for themselves a little secret about mayonnaise (and thus retain for themselves the kudos of being clever enough to make it)

But as of today, I'm in on their secret. I have a new skill: I can make mayonnaise. It's gorgeous – and it won't be the last time.

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