You can’t take European cooking classes without learning how to whip up some fresh mayonnaise. Today, mayo has become a common table sauce spread on sandwiches and used to dunk French fries, but its origins have a heated history. Various reports date the creation of mayonnaise to the 17th century, sometime during the Seven Years’ War. But the question remains as to whether the sauce is French or Spanish in origin. Of course, chefs and scholars from both countries lay claim to the worldwide condiment] favorite. So who can really call mayonnaise their national sauce? Here is a basic explanation of how the sauce is made, and the debatable histories of which European nation is really its mother country.
What is mayo?
Mayonnaise is made from only three ingredients: eggs, oil and an acidic agent, such as lemon juice. The sauce was once a high-end product often made in-house by chefs so it was fresh. Mayonnaise and aioli are often confused due to their similarities in ingredients and texture, but aioli includes mashed garlic, giving it a strong flavor.
The French have a couple different stories on how mayo originated in their country. The famed culinary encyclopedia by Pierre Larousse claims that mayonnaise was first made in France and gained its name from the word moyeu, which means yolk. Many sources cite that during the first battle of the Seven Years’ War in 1756 – a siege on Port Mahon – a French chef created the sauce because there was no cream in the region. In honor of the location at which the chef created the sauce, he named it mahonnaise. Other sources provide a similar story with the key difference being that the chef learned to make mayonnaise from residents on the island.
On the other side of the debate, many members of the culinary elite believe the story that France stole the sauce recipe from Spanish forces during the Seven Years’ War, and then claimed it as there own creation. A Spanish chef named Teodoro Bardají insisted that the original name of mayonnaise was salsa mahonesa.
It’s impossible to corroborate either story, especially since the French popularized the iconic sauce. French chefs passed on the recipe to other European countries and then word spread to the United States near the beginning of the 20th century. At the time, most mayonnaise was still handmade. However, the industrialization of food production lead to many companies creating large amounts of the in-demand condiment, turning it into the product it is today.