The man in the corner was bringing a monk-like zeal to his task. He had, upon arrival, been given a glass of wine, a mortar and a pestle and instructions that in his hands rested the making of the aioli, the garlicky mayonnaise that people love or hate.
On this evening all present were garlic lovers and the maker of the sauce was assured, as he pounded away at his task, that no, it was definitely not too strong.
There was a sea trout baking in the oven, its firm white flesh to be spread with the sauce, and a large bowl of lightly cooked-grean beans was ready for scooping up the remains.
It was a small version of what the French celebrate in mid-summer and it made everyone think that next time, we would enlarge our meal and turn it into that garlicky festival of summer harvest -- Le Grand Aioli.
Judith Olney, in her book Summer Food (lovely for reading as well as for cooking, published by Atheneum) has an evocative description of the feast:
"A summer's scene, the mid-season Grand Aioli in a small Provencal town. . . Business is closed for the day. Everyone is spirited and happy. Whole families of three, sometimes four, generations group and kiss, touch and laugh, as they wait for the feast to begin. Because I am alone and no one should be on such an occasion, I am invited to sit at a large table with a mother and father, two sets of their married children, some assorted grandchildren and a small, aged aunt. . . .
"The feast is a progress of salt cod, snails, eggs and vegetables. Artichokes, beans, potatoes, beets are heaped upon our plates, and a prodigious amount of powerfully garlicked mayonnaise is centered on the table. We dip our bites communally into the aioli, that pungent, heavy sauce that seems to hold within itself the very soul of the meridional people. And we don't dip lightly; we immerse. The old lady has a knife which she uses to spread on a double thickness. I keep up with them, bite for bite. . . .
"When the eating ends, the wine continues, and the toasts and the songs -- 300 people laughing and swaying at the old stone tables under the ancient trees with the stream endlessly flowing and the long light slanting through a summer's afternoon.
"Do we, they ask, have such feasts in the United States?
Here is Judith Olney's recipe for aioli: 10 large garlic cloves, peeled 1/4 teaspoon salt Fresh-ground pepper A lemon half 4 egg yolks at room temperature Quality olive oil 1 teaspoon boiling water
"Have all ingredients at room temperature. Pound the garlic to a puree with mortar and pestle; add salt, several grindings of pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Add egg yolks and stir with pestle until they thicken and appear a shade or two lighter in color.
"Have olive oil ready in a small, easy-to-handle pitcher. From now on, stir always in the same direction and at the same relaxed speed. Start dribbling in oil, slowly at first, until a thin mayonnaise has formed and is apparent. Now continue pouring oil in a small but steady stream. Once or twice add a squeeze of lemon juice.
"At no time should the oil be added so quickly that it remains on the surface. Look and listen for the following as the sauce builds; toward the end of the process, the mayonnaise will 'sound,' i.e., it will make small, steady 'clicks' as the pestle revolves in the thick mass, a sign that the oil will soon reach its limit. More important is the visual appearance. The oil starts hitting in a different way. Instead of almost immediate absorption, it cracks the mass lightly, leaving oily traces in the pestle's wake. A little of this can be tolerated, but if the aioli is as thick as it should be (it should hold the pestle upright) one might as well stop.
"Add 1 teaspoon of boiling water to stabilize the sauce. Taste for lemon and salt and add more if need be."