January 14, 2020

Researcher Pep Pelfort reveals that a printing error allowed the French to stake a claim for the origin of the sauce

If there is one question that is repeatedly asked in every Spanish household, it is whether the spelling of this popular sauce is “mahonesa” or “mayonesa”. It was also a question Pep Pelfort of the Scientific Council at Institut Menorquí d’Estudis asked himself, and this led him to conduct research to confirm that the origins of the sauce can be traced back to Menorca, and that the proper spelling is “mahonesa”. “The story of the sauce was distorted by a printing error which changed the H to a Y”, says Pelfort. French etymological dictionaries clearly state that the sauce is from Mahón, and was unknown in the neighbouring country until the duke of Richelieu conquered the island in 1756, because “the sauce did not exist in France prior to that date”. 

The duke’s chefs, Maret and Roquellere, took the recipe back to their own country.

The letter problem arose in 1807. Due to a printing error, the initial name ‘à la mahonnaise’ was published in a recipe book as ‘mayonnaise’, and the great architect of French cuisine, Carême, also put forward a number of hypotheses to prove the sauce was of French origin.

The printing error also led to the beginnings of a most profitable business. “A German woman who bought the book decided to make chicken sandwiches with the sauce. After she had made a lot of money, she and her husband emigrated to the United States, where they began to package it with the label ‘Hellmann’s”, says the man who trained as a doctor, but has always worked in the field of gastronomy, as a cook, researcher, writer and instigator of a number of projects.

To add to this culinary confusion, Pelfort found that a 17th century poem-recipe for the sauce, had been attributed – mistakenly – to Lancelot, and so it was assumed that the sauce had not originated in Menorca.

Both the Spanish Royal Academy and Ángel Muro, a 19th century gastronome and writer of culinary essays, gave credibility to the date of the text, and so the sauce became an integral part of French cuisine under the name of “mayonnaise”, which also put it on the international stage, thanks to the great chef Auguste Escoffier.

But then a winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature came on the scene. Camilo José Cela discovered that the poem in fact dated back to the 19th century, and that therefore “mahonesa originated in Mahón and not in France, and the French had claimed it due to the printing error”, Pelfort explains. In fact, in the course of his search through old cookery books he found nothing at all about mahonesa, although other oil-based emulsions were mentioned. However, in medical books he discovered a base emulsion similar to an ointment, made of oil and egg yolk. “It was used to treat sexual diseases and hair, as an excipient for adding other things, or as a balm”, he says.