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Poetry in motion

A mortar and pestle can bring you back to what cooking has always been about: sensuality, attention, transformation.

September 15, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Every time I pull my Catalan mortar and pestle off the shelf, I think of a late summer lunch at Mas de Daumas Gassac. I'd visited the vineyards and cellar of the wine estate in southern France that morning, and owner Aime Guibert asked us to stay to lunch. This was no special occasion, just a summer lunch as it unfolded at the isolated estate in the wild landscape of the Languedoc.

A long table had been set under the trees in front of the old mas, or farmhouse. The tablecloth flapped in the hot summer wind while someone, I think one of the Irish graduate students spending the summer, laid the table. In all, we were 18 or 20 -- the Guiberts and their young sons, a nanny or two, students, cellar and vineyard workers, and my husband and I.

What did we have? The details have fallen away in memory. But I do remember the aioli passed around in a well-used mortar glazed in yellow splashed with green. I also think there was a cold fish. A chilled bottle of the estate's marvelous blanc, a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier. And, of course, crudites to dip in the potent garlic mayonnaise. I remember its limpid green-gold color, the sharp scent of the garlic, and its thick, glossy texture.

When I asked Madame Guibert about it, she told me she had found the mortar in Catalonia years before. She also told me she'd made the aioli right in the mortar. This was news to me. I'd learned to make mayonnaise in a blender. And every recipe I'd ever seen at that point implied that even in a blender it was a terribly tricky business.

A couple of weeks later, in Barcelona, I found my mortar and pestle. I wanted to buy the biggest the shop had, but my husband absolutely refused to add it to our already overflowing luggage. So I settled for the medium-sized one, not nearly as magnificent. Wrapped in one of my sweaters, it made it home intact, which was the important thing. As soon as I unwrapped it, I made some aioli -- and found it isn't tricky at all. You don't have to whip it frantically, just steadily stir in one direction as you dribble in the olive oil until it thickens. And it will.

Pleasingly low tech

Working with a mortar and pestle is peculiarly soothing and relaxing. After pounding the garlic and sea salt together to make a paste, I fall into a kind of reverie as I work in the startling gold egg yolk. I could never see what was happening in the blender. It was all over in 30 seconds, and besides, there's the annoying noise the thing makes.

The mortar and pestle is definitely low tech. But that's precisely its virtue. The transformation happens right in front of you as you add the oil, drop by drop, stirring in one direction with the pestle. It's not that it takes a lot of muscle: It doesn't. It takes patience and attention, both of which are good for the soul.

No stress, no mess, suddenly you have aioli. Or mayonnaise, or any variation thereof. And you can serve it right in the mortar.

I have one mortar for grinding spices, a deep narrow brass one from Morocco that rings like a bell when I pound cardamom seeds or peppercorns. The pestle is heavy enough to break through the hard casing, and the mortar is deep enough that the seeds don't just go flying out. I use a Mexican molcajete made from pitted volcanic rock to make guacamole, grinding the cilantro, chiles and salt to a paste and then mashing in the avocado to make a rough puree. I use an English pharmacist's mortar made of smooth cream ceramic to mix Dijon mustard, herbs, vinegar and oil for a vinaigrette.

I've come to appreciate the difference between pesto or its Provencal equivalent, pistou, made with a heavy granite mortar and pestle. This is the big one, which holds a couple of cups. I covet one of the classic Carrara marble mortars with four "ears" to grab as handles, but the less expensive green granite Thai ones work just as well.

Wear old clothes and wrap yourself in an apron, though, in case you get carried away with the rhythm of pounding and some of the pistou escapes. Like aioli, it starts with plump fresh garlic cloves pounded with salt to a paste. Then, a few leaves at a time, you grind in the basil leaves. Bruised rather than cut, the basil releases all its aroma and flavor and forms a marvelous moss-colored paste with a nubbly texture. It takes just minutes to work in two cups of leaves. Once you taste and experience the difference, you'll never go back to the blender.

At least once each summer I have to make soupe au pistou. Basically, it's a Provencal version of the Genovese minestrone made with a wealth of late summer vegetables -- zucchini, carrots, potatoes, green beans, squash, tomatoes, fresh borlotti beans and more -- with a dollop of emerald pistou stirred in at the end.

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