Allioli is not garlic mayonnaise.
You’ll find this condiment all over Catalan tables, but rest assured the Catalan version of the Provençal aïoli is not a glorified mayonnaise. It’s exactly what its Catalan name says it is: garlic (all) and (i) oil (oli). Real Catalan allioli is garlic and olive oil (with some salt) hand whipped into a white and shiny emulsion. No egg and no bread crumbs are added for thickening or emulsifying.
If you think that sounds next to impossible to accomplish, you’re not alone. Most people call on a grandmother or a fisherman to hand whip the magical condiment (seems no one else has the special touch). I don’t know where the disproportionate number of fishermen and elderly women are hiding in Catalonia, but wherever they are they must be doing nothing else, because there isn’t a Catalan dish that doesn’t include allioli. And the rule is if one person eats it, everyone has to eat it (to share the garlic breath burden). So there’s a lot of allioli going around these parts.
Allioli is pretty much the only dipping sauce allowed on Catalan tables. Grilled meat and fowl are the most popular things dipped in it. But everything from fried potatoes to steamed shrimp and plain old bread all get dipped in the potent garlic potion. You can be sure the white dollop on the edge of your bowl of fish stew is allioli. With your grilled snails? Allioli. It’s the sauce that brings out the beauty and hides the ugly, the perfect accoutrement (that’s a French word, by the way, meaning to clothe or equip) to any dish, good or bad. No wonder it’s so fully embraced by chefs and cooks from hearth fire to Michelin stars.
To confirm your Catalan fisherman or grandmother ancestry, try out the following recipe from Coleman Andrews’ book Catalan Cuisine. And let me know how it turns out.
6 cloves peeled garlic (or more if you’re brave)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup mild, high quality, extra virgin olive oil
Cut each clove of garlic in half lengthwise and discard any green pieces, then mince the garlic finely.
Scatter salt in the bowl of a larger mortar and add the garlic. Mash the garlic gently with a pestle, mixing it with the salt until it takes on the consistency of a thick paste.
Add the olive oil very slowly, a few drops at a time, while stirring the mixture with the pestle, using slow, even motions and always stirring in the same direction. Continue adding oil until an emulsion forms. Less than a full cup might be sufficient to obtain this result, in which case do not use the rest, as it will “break” the emulsion.
NOTE: It is very important for the success of the emulsion that all the ingredients be at room temperature–even the garlic.