When Alexandra Feswick was writing the menu for Brockton General, a Toronto restaurant that serves rustic fare, she encountered a linguistic challenge. What should she call the house-made pickled wild leek, carrot and beet mayonnaises served alongside her cornmeal-crusted fried smelts?
Mayo or aioli?
It’s a predicament facing chefs who are hoping to lift mayonnaise, the overlooked condiment mostly associated with Hellmann’s or its cloying sister Miracle Whip, from trashy to artisanal. A growing number of them are tinkering with the basic emulsion of egg yolk, oil and acid (traditionally vinegar or lemon juice) and whipping up small batches that go well beyond chipotle – think vadouvan, smoked paprika, chorizo and mole.
Mayo’s upmarket overhaul is part of a “condiment revolution” says Elizabeth Valleau. Along with chef Sam Mason, she’s getting ready to open Empire Mayonnaise, a kitchen and retail space from which they’ll sell nothing but “luxury mayonnaise” in Brooklyn, N.Y., next month.
So far, Empire’s 33 flavours include: black garlic, Indian lime pickle, fennel, nori and hen of the woods. For Christmas, the duo is working on pumpernickel, spicy cinnamon and rosemary thyme varieties. As one might expect, artisanal condiments come with artisanal prices: a four-ounce jar will go for $5 (U.S.) and “black label” flavours including quail egg, white truffle, pistachio and coffee are pricier at $7.
Mayo is proving as divisive an issue among foodies as the bacon craze of 2007. With news last month of Empire’s launch, one commenter on Grub Street announced the New York food scene had “finally jumped the shark.”
Ms. Valleau understands that focusing on something so specific can seem “pretentious,” but blames mainstream brands for giving mayo a bad rep: “It’s more a poor perception of Hellmann’s than it should be a reflection on mayonnaise. In France, it’s considered the ultimate condiment, as it is throughout most of Europe.”
Trashy or not, unadorned Hellmann’s works just fine for plenty of Americans: The brand emerged last month as the bestselling condiment in the United States, trouncing salsa, which held the title since 2006, according to SymphonyIRI Group. Hellmann’s alone accounted for $401.2-million in sales last year, making up nearly a third of the staggering $1.3-billion mayo market.
Domestically, mayo sales reached nearly $200-million (Canadian) between August, 2010, and 2011, outpacing both ketchup ($140-million) and mustard ($69-million), according to consumer research group Neilsen. Canadians, says Joel Gregoire, food and beverage industry analyst with NPD Group, tend to consume their mayo at lunch on sandwiches.
But that too is changing, thanks to artisanal mayo makers who will put it on anything from canapés to fries, Belgian style. As more chefs reimagine comfort foods with fine ingredients, condiments are getting their turn.
At Wvrst, a “sausage hall” in downtown Toronto, mayo flavours such as maple rosemary, malt, curry, and black pepper and onion gild gourmet hot dogs.
“People started to notice that they could do a hell of a lot more with mayos,” owner Aldo Lanzillotta says. “People’s palates have evolved.”
The restaurant currently has 10 mayos on its menu. Mr. Lanzillotta wants to step it up with truffle peel, caviar and porcini varieties, and hopes to retail them all soon. He says the “beautiful dips” served up from Belgian’s fry trucks launched his addiction. “The Belgians have it right: They have their beer and they eat some fries and they move along.”
At Edible Canada in Vancouver, chefs have combined two foodie favourites in a bacon mayo they serve with duck fat cooked frites. Beyond fries, Australian chef Adam Hynam-Smith and his Canadian partner Tamara Jensen use tobiko and wasabi aiolis to flavour the Japanese-inspired tacos that come out of El Gastronomo Vagabundo, a gourmet mobile food truck they run out of St. Catharines, Ont. And Michael Howell, chef at Tempest in Wolfville, N.S., uses mayo to top his line-caught haddock fish cakes. His chow-chow rémoulade combines a house-made lemon aioli with chopped capers and the sweet and sour green tomato relish common on the East Coast.
“I went to culinary school in Chicago and my instructor at the time said, ‘Fat plus fat equals good,’ ” Mr. Howell says.
Ultimately, gourmet mayo works because it’s a powerful vehicle to “express the seasonal harvest,” says Andrew Mackenzie, owner of Buddha Dog in Picton, Ont.
With about 200 condiments conjured over six years in business with local producers, Mr. Mackenzie experiments with daily mayos throughout the year. This typically progresses from wild leek, through garlic scape, ver jus (vinegar made with the juice of unripened grapes), berry, pesto, roasted garlic, beet and finally horseradish.
Mr. Mackenzie says customers are getting more adventurous with their mayos. For a recent Haitian fundraiser, they did a mango variety that “cooled out a traditional spicy voodoo slaw that topped the dogs.” That’s not to say some efforts don’t bomb: Pumpkin pie mayo has been a non-starter.
Today, Buddha Dog has done away the term aioli, which means garlic mayonnaise but has become a misnomer for many flavoured varieties. “We’ll use the term mayo just to speak as plainly as possible,” Mr. Mackenzie says.
At this point in the game, the a-word is for “sissies,” says Alex Svenne, owner and chef at Winnipeg’s Bistro 7 1/4, where “Berber spiced” mayo packed with cumin, fennel, coriander and paprika is a mainstay.
“For a lark,” Mr. Svenne has also offered deep fried mayo as an amuse bouche: “When you bite into it, it’s a swoosh of warm mayonnaise.”
He boasts: “I’ve always used the word mayonnaise proudly.”