Pestles & Mortars

You may have picked up that I’m passionate about pestles and mortars.  I can’t remember when I got my first one but I have been grinding spices and making vinaigrettes and mayos and aiolis and pesto in one or another since I started cooking.   There’s something very satisfying about pounding and turning and watching your creation slowly come to life before you.

Here is a picture of some of my p&m’s (I have more at our home in France). The biggest one I acquired when we were living in London in 1990. I was at the Bermondsey Market one Friday shopping for antiques with a couple of friends when I came upon it in all its grandeur and beauty.  I did not stop for a moment to consider what I might use it for, nor did I consider what it might weigh (just shy of 40 lbs). I had to have it.

We had come to the market by bus but the plan was to walk back across Tower Bridge and thereafter take the Underground home.  I began to feel it about half way across the bridge – my knees started buckling and my arms feeling stretched to the ground.  By the time we reached the Underground I was really suffering.  A change of tube lines and a further quarter mile home and I was practically crawling.  But I had my beautiful pestle and mortar.

Nowadays, it sits regally on the kitchen counter.  I seldom move it, even to make an aioli.


Aioli is garlic mayonnaise. It is probably the most beloved of all Provençal dishes and each summer Le Grand Aioli is the centerpiece of meals held at festivals throughout Provence.  But more about that at a later time.

In the meantime, here’s a simple recipe to make about a cup of this voluptuous golden sauce to douse generously on vegetables, frites, fish, or anything else you might deem appropriate.


2 medium garlic cloves, peeled

good pinch of salt

one egg yolk at room temperature 

2/3 cup olive oil

1/3 cup vegetable oil

Pound the garlic and salt until you have a paste.  Add the egg yolk and stir it around with the pestle until amalgamated.

Mix the oils in a suitable small jug or any vessel with a small spout.  Start adding the oil to the egg mixture, very slowly and rhythmically, drop by drop, until it starts to make a sort of sucking sound as you move it around and up the side of the mortar.  Keep going slowly until you’ve used about half the oil (your arm will be falling off so we find that one person pouring and the other stiring, taking turns,  is the answer).  By the time you’ve used up half the oil, it should have “taken” and you can start pouring more rapidly. You should end up with a fairlly solid mass – the pestle will stand upright in it.  Check for salt and add a teaspoon of lemon juice if you like (I don’t).

If, despite all precautions, it separates, you will have to remove the mess from the mortar, clean it out, put in another egg yolk and, little by little, add the unsuccessful aoili, while turning the pestle constantly, hoping for better luck the second time around.

How, you might ask, can anything possibly be worth all this trouble?  Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll never look back.


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