A ceramic bowl landed on the white tablecloth with a thud, a wooden handle jutting straight out the top. Inside was a substance thick enough to keep the pestle standing upright and the same color as its container, a deep yellow, almost orange.
My first thought was of Velveeta cheese. Instead, it was homemade mayonnaise, mashed into a paste with mortar and pestle from just a technicolor egg yolk, a few drops of olive oil and a pinch of salt. The idea was to smear it not only on the steamed scorpionfish in seaweed broth that it came with, but also on bread like butter.
The presentation and pairing were enough to upend conventional wisdom about a potato salad ingredient. But then there was the story behind it, not to mention the unexpected location — the seaside Sa Llagosta restaurant in Menorca far off Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
“For a long time, the French said it was a sauce that they had made, but they didn’t create it,’’ said Antoni Juaneda, the founder of the Association of Brother Roger. His organization, named after a monk who compiled more than 200 Menorcan recipes into a cookbook in 1740, aims to raise the culinary profile of the island, which is better known for secluded beaches surrounded by limestone cliffs.
Traditionally, the cuisine focuses as much on peasant food like oliaigua, a hearty vegetable soup similar to Portuguese caldo verde, as it does on seafood. Other recipes in the book include baked-stuffed eggplant and fish meatballs that are filled with cheese, breaded and fried.
Mayonnaise is a small part of Jauneda’s effort, but he’s eager to set the record straight all the same.
The story of how Menorca gave the world mayonnaise, like much of European history, involves war. The British occupied the island during the War of Spanish Succession in 1708, lost it to the French in 1756 at the start of the Seven Years War, and then got it back at the end of it. During that brief period, Juaneda said, a French naval commander was enamored with a sauce he found in Mahon, the capital, and brought it and a new word back home: mahon-aise.
Centuries later, mayonnaise is now the most common cold sauce in the world. It’s still a fairly common accompaniment for seafood in the northeast of Spain, particularly fideua, which is sort of a paella with noodles instead of rice. During my meal in the town of Fornells , it also found its way into a baked lobster gratin with lime zest and as a saffron dipping sauce for fried fish wrapped in serrano ham.
Real “mahonesa’’ should not be confused with aioli, which historically was made only from mashed garlic and oil, and it never carries the tangy zip of vinegar that’s common in American varieties. It’s also an intensely laborious process.
Across the island in Ciutadella, the atmospheric historical capital, chef Sílvia Anglada cracked the brown shell of a free-range egg and toggled the orange yolk around a few times before discarding the white. She plopped it into a marble mortar and gently leaned the spout of an olive oil bottle into a groove on the edge. Drop by drop, the locally produced S’Olivaret oil fell into the bowl as she began churning away.
“It’s really easy to make,’’ Anglada said in the kitchen of Es Tast de na Sílvia, though she may have been exaggerating.
After several minutes of mixing, the sticky concoction began making a crackling sound like popping little plastic bubbles on packing material. In total, she had added only a couple teaspoons of oil and a pinch of salt.
Anglada paused for a moment to see if the pestle would stand upright. It leaned a little, so she switched arms and resumed churning.
“The grandmothers say that you can’t change the hand you use to make it, or the direction,’’ she said. “That’s because they say it changes the feeling, the texture. But I do it.’’
Despite bucking tradition in this case, Anglada is used to doing things the old way. Hers is the only Slow Food-certified restaurant in the Balearic Islands, a group that also includes more-developed Mallorca and tiny, party-till-dawn Ibiza. In Anglada’s dining room, the year 1704 is stamped into a capstone on the arched ceiling.
It took 10 minutes of mixing before the mayonnaise passed the test. Anglada held the bowl upside down to demonstrate the sauce’s solid consistency. It didn’t budge, nor did it look or taste anything like that creamy white sauce that comes in a squeeze bottle.
The result shared the texture of warm brie, with the same decadent richness but a fresher flavor. Anglada might use it to thicken a soup, or form the base of a sauce.
But it would have made spectacular potato salad, too.