Pep Pelfort

December 15, 2019

The genealogy of mayonnaise, the Menorcan sauce

The most famous and most consumed product of Menorcan origin in the world, the star sauce of myriad international dishes and recipes, is mayonnaise. Controversy over its ‘paternity’ has continued for the last 250 years. At Madrid Fusión 2020, researcher Pep Pelfort will review its past, tracing the genealogy of mayonnaise, the Menorcan sauce. He will thus explain the reason for why it is singularly Menorcan, and justify why this sauce was commonly used on the island but not in other parts of the Mediterranean where olive oil was also used to cooked with. A doctor by training (1982-88, Universitat de Barcelona, Hospital Clínic), Pep Pelfort has always worked in the field of gastronomy, as a cook, researcher, writer, and has been responsible for many different projects. In 1995 he founded the Centre for Gastronomic Studies, based on an interdisciplinary vision of food linked to history, art, technology, dietetics and medicine, offering an updated view of Hippocrates’s belief ‘that food is your medicine’, transforming into ‘cooking is the most important part of medicine’. This task has resulted in many publications, collaborations in audiovisual media, as well as the creation of several associated projects, and consulting for restaurants and producers. Since 2011 he has sought to delve into the gastronomy and the local produce of Menorca, in particular technical and historical studies of mayonnaise, its derivatives and its special link with health, presenting a paper on this at the Academy of Medical Sciences of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. He is a member of the Institut Menorquí d'Estudis, Founder of Fra Roger (Gastronomy and Culture) and a member of its Advisory Board. Today he heads the Centro de Estudios Gastronómicos Menorca. In the past, the most famous and most consumed sauce in the world could be found under its name in any cookbook or as a commercial brand for historical reasons. The reason is now well known and accepted: the Duke of Richelieu was responsible for exporting it after 1756, together with his chefs Maret and Roquellere. At that time, the most famous place name heard of by non-Menorcans – known for its commercial and military importance – was Port-Mahon, from where the sauce mahonesa was exported; but various twists and turns led to changes in its name and confusion about its origins. In a nutshell, its initial name à la mahonnaise was published with a typo as ‘mayonnaise’, perhaps because it was easier to pronounce. Meanwhile, the great architect of French cuisine, Carême, put forward various hypotheses to prove it was actually of French origin. The coup de grâce came at the end of the century with a poem-recipe for the sauce attributed to the 17th century Lancelot, most likely inspired by the brilliant chef from Liège, Lancelot de Casteau, but in truth written two centuries later by Ozanne. Both the RAE (Royal Spanish Academy) and Angel Muro gave credibility to this falsehood and, just as this sauce was becoming an integral part and cornerstone of French cuisine (equating to ‘international’ back then) under the great systematic Escoffier, it was given the name ‘mayonnaise’. It was the esteemed cooks Ignasi Domènech de Manresa and Teodoro Bardají de Binéfar who vindicated the sauce’s real origins by persevering that the truth be told, a legacy later continued by Camilo José Cela and José María Pisa, who both contributed irrefutable information. In short, although the emulsification of oil and eggs goes back a long way, its use in the strict sense of a sauce is of unquestionable Menorcan origin; it was there that it was consumed as such and appreciated as a commonly used sauce, until Richelieu arrived … fell in love with it, introduced it to the world and gave an actual name to mahonesa, the Menorcan sauce.