Le Grand Aïoli
BY GEORGEANNE BRENNAN AND TARA AUSTEN WEAVER
This time of year I long to be in the South of France—and not for the beaches, lavender fields, or small stone cottages either. It’s a festival I want to attend, and a meal as well. In the late summer, throughout the region of Provence, long tables and chairs are set out in town squares and villagers gather to celebrate the annual feast of Le Grand Aioli.
Noted cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan first encountered this tradition when she and her family moved to a small Provencal town in the 1970s. “A group of teenagers came knocking on our door, giggling and laughing,” she said, “asking for a contribution to the feast.” Brennan didn’t know what to make of it.
Her neighbor explained the village would gather on August 15th, that she could buy tickets at the local café. When the day came, Brennan and her family walked down to the village square. They didn’t realize they were about to take part in a tradition hundreds of years old.
Le Grand Aioli is a feast held in the late summer after the garlic has been harvested. Garlic is considered one of the pillars of Provencal cuisine, along with olive oil and aromatic herbs. Aioli (pronounced eye-oh-lee) blends garlic and olive oil with egg yolks in a golden-hued sauce that is ladled onto vegetables and fish.
What Brennan and her family found that evening was a scene played out in villages throughout the area. The event began with pastis and snacks from an aperitif bar, as locals set out plates and glasses on long tables covered with butcher paper. Down the middle was a line of bottles of rosé wine and water. “Everyone brought their own plates and utensils,” explained Brennan, “—and there was never any paper or plastic, nobody had money for things like that.”
The entire evening was a community effort, financed and put on by locals. “A lot of the women got together to cook the vegetables in the town’s community kitchen,” Brennan said. “It was all volunteer.”
Soon dinner was being carried to tables by the volunteers and doled out—green beans, carrots, beets, potatoes, and hardboiled eggs (a “grand” aioli includes at least six accompanying ingredients). There was bread by the local baker and ladleful after ladleful of yellow aioli.
“They asked if we wanted aioli made with olive oil—or one with sunflower oil and olive oil, which is not as strong or peppery,” Brennan explains. “It’s not the garlic that makes it strong, it’s the flavor of the olive oil.”
In addition to vegetables, the traditional accompaniments served with aioli are salt cod and snails. Cod had been so common in Provence it was traditionally considered peasant food, salted for preservation, while snails had been consumed in the region since prehistoric times. “It was about using what you have,” said Brennan. “Salt cod and snails were plentiful and cheap.” That evening the Brennan’s joined their neighbors in a meal with roots that run deep into the history of the region, celebrated year after year.
The meal for Le Grand Aioli is only one part of a larger festival that goes on for several days, with boules tournaments (similar to bocce), music, and dancing in the evening. It’s an event as cultural as it is culinary.
“It’s a way of teaching community life,” says Brennan. The grandparents are dancing with their grandchildren and the teenagers kiss their parents’ friends on each cheek before they go off—it’s about manners and the ongoing value that France places on their culture.”
Most communities hold their aioli feasts on or around August 15th—the same day as the Catholic Feast of the Assumption. Though essentially a local celebration, it draws friends and relatives of villagers who also want to participate. On the evening of Le Grand Aioli, Brennan’s village of 300 people swells to about 500. “It’s a tight community,” she says, “but welcoming to whoever shows up.”
At the end of the meal, pastries from the local bakery are brought out for dessert—tarts filled with fresh fruit or chocolate mousse, almond meringues, and small petit fours. When at last the meal is over, and the final boules competition has been played, the villagers pack up their plates—wiped clean with the last crusts of bread—and load them back into baskets to be carried home.
The feast is over, until next year at least.