Mayonnaise, however you like to spell it, is at least two hundred and fifty years old. It is said to have been invented by The Duc de Richelieu’s cook in 1736, while the good duke was busy besieging the English at Port Mahon on the island of Minorca – and I cannot for the life of me see why not.
There are other and even older versions of the origins of this queen of sauces: one of them being that the name comes from manier, French for manipulate. Another remembers moyeu, an ancient French name for the yolk of an egg.
We do know that whether or not the duke’s cook actually made his version of the sauce famous, it is obvious that by the 1750s the sauce was already known both in Spain and in Provence. Certainly the Spanish have a unique (and traditional) utensil for dripping the olive oil into the mayonnaise: it is a teapot-shaped can with a long, straight spout, from which the oil drips drop by drop, which is the secret of successfully making mayonnaise! Rare indeed is the hardware shop in the north of Spain where they do not sell this item. You will find a version of it made in glass or plastic in most Spanish kitchens, all of which leads me to wonder if the duke’s cook was himself Spanish?
Mayonaise is one of the best and most universally useful of all the sauces – and it is not cooked at any stage. It appears as if by magic, or anyway what seems to be a conjuring trick. Your cook used to have to do it by hand, but the appearance of these marvellous modern mixers means a nearly perfect mayonnaise can be made in seconds. But this deprives one of the great pleasure that can be derived from sitting down with bowl and spoon, eggs, oil and all, to make the marvellous, glaucus, shining, golden ointment which is mayonnaise.
Use a deep earthenware or china bowl, the yolk of 3 eggs (or two if you are measly), a wooden spoon, a third of a litre of best olive oil, half a teaspoon of salt, a few grains of freshly ground black pepper, a garlic clove (if you like garlic, some don’t), a few drops of tarragon or wine vinegar, or the juice of half a very fresh and ripe lemon.
Should the weather outside be freezing stand the olive oil in a warm room and do not use it until it is limpid and clear. Frozen or even well chilled olive oil will curdle your mayonnaise as sure as eggs is eggs. If you live in a tropical climate you must on the other hand chill the oil on a little ice before use. Stand the bowl on a cloth or some kitchen paper to prevent is sliding about.
Whisk or stir the egg yolks thoroughly BEFORE adding the drops of oil. Add the salt, and start dropping oil into the mixture, drop by drop until it is a slow, thin stream. Remember that with this quantity of eggs about a third of the oil you have prepared must be dripped before the mayonnaise starts coming to life and shows (and feels) that characteristic firmness. When you feel that you could stand your spoon upright in the mayonnaise and it would not move (though actually it probably would); when you lift up the spoon and let the mayonnaise drop back, if it makes a deep PLOP like a thick jelly, you have made your sauce.
Add lemon or vinegar from a dropper or spoon from the begtinning of the process, but do not add too much, or the sauce will be ruined. In this way you can control the thickness as you like.
Here is a tip: if you decide to use an electric blender or mixer, ensure the glass or plastic container is clean and dry first. Drop in your egg or eggs complete, yoke, white and all. Add three or four drops of vinegar or lemon. Add the garlic clove chopped fine, salt and pepper. Start the machine on the lowest speed, and pour the olive oil in a gentle stream through the hole in the glass or plastic top. As soon as the whirlpool in the middle of the mauonnaise disappears, your sauce is made. Pour and spoon it into a ceramic jug. If you won’t be using it for a day or two, another tip is, AT THIS STAGE ONLY, add two or three spoonfuls of boiling water. The mayonnaise will not not turn oily or separate while it waits in your refrigerator.
I am told there exists a method by which a mayonnaise clone can be made by using full cream milk instead of eggs. How disgusting. I was also told by a ninety year old Spanish private house cook that he adds two or three drops of brandy to the mixture at the start of the process. How delicious.
Use with veal steaks, chicken, boiled or baked potatoes, white or blue fish or seafood especially giant prawns.