“Aïoli epitomizes the heat, the power, and the joy of the Provençal sun, but it has another virtue—if drives away files.”
—Frédéric Mistral, Provençal Poet, 1830–1914
Old customs die hard, and though this very Catholic country of France no longer insists that there be a day without meat, Friday is still a fish day as far as the Provençal diet is concerned. You see fish trucks parked in nearly every village, so that housewives can fill their baskets with sardines and anchovies, mackerel, and sweet, tiny mussels from the Bassin de Thau off the Mediterranean. But the favorite Friday fish of all is salt cod, the main ingredient of the popular one-dish meal known as aïoli, which is served with the garlic-rich mayonnaise of the same name. Traditional aïoli includes good portions of poached salt cod, which the French call morue salée, along with steamed green beans, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, and hard-cooked eggs. Some cooks add the local tiny snails known as petits gris, and others add cooked beets and steamed artichokes. A proper aïoli is served only at lunch, giving the digestive system a good long time to deal with the richness of the sauce. The meal is a festive affair, and often the sauce is served direct from the giant stone or marble mortar and olive-wood pestle essential to every Provencal kitchen. Since it is usually quite hot when aïoli is served, it’s perfectly fine if everything is at room temperature, but never cold. As one drives around Provence in the summer months, one often see posters tacked on a tree announcing an Aïoli Géant! Follow the signs and you are sure to have a festive meal, downed with plenty of chilled local rosé.
- 2 pounds salt cod
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- A handful of dried fennel branches or 1 fennel bulb, quartered
- 1 onion, stuck with 4 whole cloves
- 6 black peppercorns
- 1 pound small beets
- 2 pounds small potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
- 1 pound medium carrots, peeled
- 1 whole cauliflower (about 2 pounds), trimmed and broken into florets
- 1 pound ultra fresh small green beans
- 8 hard-cooked eggs, in their shells
- 1 recipe Garlic Mayonnaise
A vegetable steamer
6-quart pasta pot fitted with a colander
1. One or 2 days before preparing the final dish—depending upon the saltiness of the fish—place the salt cod in a bowl of cold water and soak, covered, in the refrigerator. Change the water three or four times during the soaking period to remove excess salt. Drain and rinse the fish.
2. Place the cod in a large saucepan. Add fresh cold water to cover, along with the orange zest, fennel branches or quarters, onion pricked with cloves, and peppercorns, and bring just to a simmer over medium heat. Immediately remove the pan from the heat. Cover and let stand for at least 15 minutes. Drain well and discard the flavorings. Scrape any fatty skin off the fish and remove any bones. Tear the fish into large pieces and arrange on a platter.
3. Cooking each vegetable separately, steam the beets, potatoes, and carrots. Peel and halve or quarter the beets and arrange on a separate platter for just the vegetables. Add the potatoes to the platter. Halve the carrots lengthwise and arrange on the platter.
4. Separately blanch, refresh, and drain the cauliflower and green beans. Arrange the cauliflower and beans on the platter. Arrange the eggs around the edges of the platter. Bring the platters to the table and serve with the sauce.