Traditional French mayonnaise is so easy to make, yet so few take the time to do it. But have you ever wondered where this deliciously creamy sauce came from? Hint, it’s linked to a 2000-year-old ancient Roman Aïoli recipe. I’ve included an authentic French Mayonnaise recipe plus two instructional videos at the end of this article by two French chefs.
So you think you know French Mayonnaise?
In France, Mayonaise is one of the most popular condiments used on meat, fish, and vegetables.
French Mayonnaise is also the preferred sauce in France for les Frites (french fries/chips if you’re British).
Despite the popularity of mayonnaise and it being a super simple sauce to make, most people stick to commercially made store-bought Mayonnaise.
To make matters even more confusing, each country has their own version of mayonnaise and preference on how mayonnaise should taste. Even the way mayonnaise looks can differ from country to country. In some countries, mayonnaise is white, while in others, it’s yellow.
For example, Japanese Mayonnaise:
The Kewpie brand mayonnaise from Japan is an extremely popular condiment that’s white in colour, tangier, sweeter, and contains more eggs than an American-style mayonnaise.
What makes French mayonnaise French? In other words, what’s the difference?
The first time I tried store-bought French Mayonnaise in France was at my local Carrefour food market and was surprised by the distinct mustard taste and yellow colour.
And Yes, people in France buy their Mayonnaise in grocery stores. All my friends here in France have a bottle of French mayonnaise in their
The biggest difference between French mayonnaise and the kind you find in other countries is the addition of mustard in French mayonnaise, roughly 3% to 6%, depending on the brand. The mustard added to mayonnaise in France is usually Dijon mustard.
I’ve tried to find French mayonnaise without mustard, but it really is next to impossible to find any brand of French mayonnaise without Dijon mustard, except if you stroll down the international section of a French grocery store and buy American mayonnaise or go to an Asian store and buy Japanese mayonnaise.
Then I tried homemade French mayonnaise and French Aïoli at a friend’s apéro dînatoire.
If you’ve ever tasted velvety homemade mayonnaise, you know how much better it tastes compared to industrial mayonnaise.
Like the store-bought French mayonnaise, my friend’s homemade French mayonnaise had a distinct mustard taste, but it tasted different, tangier and not as sweet.
My friend also put out some homemade Provençal Aïoli, which is extremely popular in the south of France, where Mediterranean culture is strong. Her homemade Provençal Aïoli tasted like a variation of French mayonnaise but with added garlic.
She, in fact, said it was easy to make both French mayonnaise and Provençal Aïoli because they use some of the same ingredients and are made very similarly, with a lot of whisking.
Origins of Mayonnaise: The name and the sauce are unclear
There’s a lot of lore behind the origins of French Mayonnaise. Historians can’t agree on the etymology of the word Mayonnaise, let alone who invented it.
Mayonnaise is spelled the same in French as in English but when speaking in French, every syllable is pronounced \May-YOE-Nayz\.
Moyeunaise: From old French
In the French cooking bible, Larousse Gastronomique, you’ll read that mayonnaise could be a corruption of moyeunaise, from the Old French moyeu, meaning “egg yolk.”
But still, this doesn’t really explain the origins of this creamy sauce.
Mahon-aise: Named after the city of Mahón
Some speculate that mayonnaise was invented by the personal chef of the French Duke de Richelieu to celebrate their victory in the grand naval battle against British fleets during the Battle of Minorca (20 May 1756).
Minorca is one of the four Balearic islands located in the Mediterranean sea that belong to Spain. They are Ibiza, Formentera, Mallorca and Menorca.
Menorca’s culture is a mix of both Spanish traditions and Mediterranean customs
The Duc of Richelieu wanted a special meal to celebrate kicking the British out of Menorca, so his chef prepared a feast of fresh seafood, served with a special dressing.
His special sauce was named Mahón-aise, after the captured port city of Mahón, the capital and second-largest city of Menorca.
“Mahón-aise” may have become “Mahonesa” or “Mayonesa” in Spanish, “Maionesa” in Catalon and “Mayonnaise” in French.
Mayonnaise as a dressing and ingredient became a huge hit in France and eventually all over the world.
There are quite a few other stories about the origins of French mayonnaise, and it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. But we’ll stick with this one because it seems to be the most likely.
Mayonnaise is most likely based on Catalan Allioli
As the story goes, the personal chef of the admiral who won the battle at Mahón may have based his special sauce on Allioli, the local Catalan variant of Aioli sauce from the island residents.
Catalonian Allioli was made with just three ingredients mashed together in a mortar and pestle.
Aïoli, Allioli, Alioli
There are three spellings that refer to a garlic and oil emulsion sauce used in the cuisine of Provence, France, Spain, and Catalonia regions of Spain and France.
Aïoli, Allioli, Alioli are all compound words meaning garlic and oil in their respective languages.
The original garlic and oil emulsion sauce recipe, which dates back nearly 2000 years, did not contain any eggs, but now many recipes, such as French Provençal Aïoli, incorporate egg yolks and are closer to garlic mayonnaise.
Many Spanish Aioli recipes also contain eggs.
In contrast, most Catalan recipes still contain only garlic and oil and have a more pasty texture.
Let’s go over all three.
1) Aïoli \Eye-YO-Lee\ : France:
Aïoli is the French spelling of this garlic and oil emulsion, which comes from the regional provençal language called Occitan.
Another French name Aïoli goes by is “beurre de Provence (butter of Provence), or Aïoli Provençal. The French version usually contains eggs. What makes this French is that sometimes people add Dijon mustard to the recipe, which makes this more similar to a French garlic mayonnaise recipe.
2) Allioli \Ah-ee-ohlee\: Catalan (Spain and France)
Allioli is the Catalan word for this garlic emulsion sauce.
When people think of Catalan, most think of Spain; however, there are roughly 450,000 French Catalans or Northern Catalans, as some like to call themselves, who reside along the border of Spain in the modern French département of the Pyrénées-Orientales.
This area of France was historically part of Catalonia before France and Spain were countries.
Spain ceded the area and the Catalan residents to France with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 under King Louis XIV. The peace treaty enlarged France and created a new border with Spain along the Pyrenees.
The interesting thing about the Catalan language is that it was originally a dialect of the French provençal language Occitan until the end of the 19th century and is Catalan’s closest relative. It diverged from Old Occitan between the 11th and 14th centuries.
Many French words like amour, pétanque, and olive are French Occitanie loan words.
3) Alioli \Ah-Lee-Ohlee\: Greater Spain:
Alioli in Spain should be similar to the Catalan version, just oil and garlic, salt and lemon, but many recipes now contain Egg yolk.
Did you know that Catalan and Spanish are the two official languages of Barcelona, Spain, and the vast majority can speak both?
All Aioli sauces lead to Rome.
Like many things European, the deeper you dig, you’ll find that “all roads lead to Rome.”
And French Mayonnaise is no different.
So although it’s likely that French mayonnaise and French Provencal Aioli are a spinoff of Allioli, the Catalonian garlic and oil emulsion sauce from Menorca, it’s possible that the recipe is much older, dating back centuries to the time of Roman occupation.
The first known mention of a sauce resembling aioli was by Pliny the Elder(23-79 A.D.), who lived in Tarragona, a city located in the south of Catalonia in what is now the northeast part of Spain.
It was a creamy emulsion of two ingredients: crushed raw garlic and olive oil. That’s it.
Pliny called this sauce garlic (Latin term: aleatum) in his book Naturalis Historia, the world’s first encyclopedia and one of the largest single works to have survived the Roman Empire that covers all ancient knowledge.
This makes aïoli (garlic and olive oil emulsion sauce) at least 2,000 years old, and it’s probably much older than that if it was mentioned in Pliny’s encyclopedia.
What’s the difference between Aïoli sauce and Mayonnaise?
In a nutshell, mustard, eggs, garlic and olive oil are what separate traditional French mayonnaise from a classic Aïoli sauce, the original recipe without eggs.
Mayonnaise and aioli sauces are both emulsion sauces created when two substances don’t want to mix but are forced to mix together. In cooking, this usually refers to oil being whisked vigorously into something water-based. The oil breaks up into tiny droplets that then get suspended within the liquid.
In the case of French Mayonnaise, a neutral oil is whisked vigorously as it’s slowly dripped into a mixture of salt, egg yolk and vinegar (the liquids).
Aioli sauces don’t use a neutral oil.
Instead, Aioli is made with olive oil, which you also whisk vigorously into a mixture of lemon juice and mashed garlic. As I mentioned earlier, some recipes use eggs now. Purists say that there should not be any egg in a true Aioli sauce. Don’t say that to a French person.
The Big Aïoli in France
Le grand Aïoli is a Provencal dish of boiled and fresh vegetables, and a variety of meats and seafood such as cod and gambas which you serve with a garlicky French Aïoli dipping sauce and other accompaniments. It’s an ideal dish to serve for a French apero, dinner party or at picnics because you can prepare it in advance and serve it at room temperature. You can serve this dish family style or plated. You can read more about this French provencal dish here.
How to make homemade mayonnaise: Traditional French Mayonnaise Recipe
If you can make a salad vinaigrette, you can make homemade French mayonnaise. It’s seriously that easy. You only need 5 ingredients that can be whipped up in less than 5 minutes. You don’t need to cook anything.
Directions: The recipe below is enough for two to four people.
Vigorously whisk the first 4 ingredients together in a bowl and make sure the salt has dissolved.
1) Dijon mustard
A teaspoon of French Dijon mustard.
2) 1 Egg yolk or 2 egg yolks if you want a bigger batch.
1 raw egg yolk should be enough for a small batch. Make sure the egg yolk is at room temperature and not cold.
3) Salt & Pepper
A pinch of salt and pepper is needed.
5) Oil (add last)
- Once the mixture of mustard, eggs, salt, pepper and vinegar is mixed well, slowly add oil to the mixture by drizzling it little by little and whisking like crazy.
- Keep adding oil and whisking until you get the desired consistency. That’s it. No measuring, no cooking, no fuss. you slowly drizzle the oil into the mixture while simultaneously whisking the mixture.
What kind of oil do you use to make French mayonnaise?
Traditionally, a neutral oil is used to make French Mayonnaise, such as grape seed oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, or sunflower oil.
Olive oil is not a neutral oil and is not traditionally used to create French Mayonnaise because it has a stronger taste. You can use it; it won’t taste the same as traditional French Mayonnaise. I do use olive oil because I prefer it, and I swap out the vinegar for lemon juice, but then you’re actually making something closer to Aioli without garlic.
If you add crushed garlic to this, then you’ll have yourself some Aïoli Provençal.