Eggs and mayonnaise are an underrated French bistro dish

If you speak French, egg-mayo has no more secrets for you: this aperitif portmanteau is no more complicated than uniting hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise – the first cut in half, the second generously garnished.

“I always think of the traditional dish with the egg cut in half, top to bottom, with the yolk on the plate and the mayonnaise coating the egg white,” says author Dorie Greenspan. “But when I was at Paul Bert, it was upside down. I asked someone why, and they said, ‘Because the yolk sticks to the plate!'”

His evocation of the restaurant famed for its adherence to tradition is no accident: indeed, although almost criminally simple, egg mayonnaise is a bistro staple, a dish Parisian food writer and stylist Rebekah Peppler says that she “saw eaten more than in.” “Egg-mayo is a bistro dish,” acknowledges French food journalist Emmanuel Rubin, “not a house dish.” Namely, the iteration of Bouillon Pigalle in Paris is the most ordered dish in France on Deliveroo (a British online food delivery company) – and the fifth most ordered dish in the world.

According to Priscilla Martel, the former chef-owner of French restaurant Du Village in Chester, Connecticut, egg-mayo is often part of a larger whole known as mixed appetizers, a mix- medley of starters including grated carrot salad, celeriac with remoulade sauce, or cubes of beets in a light vinaigrette. “The Golden Dove will make you cry,” she said. “They roll it around like a cheese cart.” But if the bags of grated carrots sold at my local Monoprix are any indication, French cooks are adept at making grated carrots. Eggs-mayo, for their part, despite their simplicity, seem relegated to bistros alone.

During my fifteen years of living in France, I was installed with several French families, but never was I served the solid combination of hard-boiled egg and mayonnaise. Greenspan posits that the French may think it’s too simple for the guests; to confirm, I called my former neighbor, the septuagenarian Régine Pla, with whom I am close enough to dine regularly (fortunately) on leftovers. She says she’s never served me egg mayo, not because it’s too easy for guests, but because she never makes it at all. While his dinner menus regularly feature deviled eggs—eggs stuffed with tuna and mayonnaise, topped with the crumbled yolk—egg-mayo sits in a weird interstitial space: too simple for company, too complex to make. just for herself.

“Just for me, I won’t make it,” she says. “I’m just going to have hard-boiled eggs on my own.”

A must-have bistro, egg-mayo remains largely thanks to its low price: barely €1.90 for three half-eggs at Bouillon Pigalle, and 90 cents at Le Voltaire for an egg cut in half. But the cheap appeal of the dish faded, following the gastronomic inclinations that the bistro suffered during the rise of bistronomy in the 1980s and 90s. It was in 1990 that Claude Lebey founded the Mayonnaise Egg Safeguard Association promote and protect the staple food; Chef Chris Edwards is the last vice-champion of the competition organized each year, rewarding the best version of the dish according to the official charter of the association: large chicken eggs, hard and no longer runny, served with a simple seasonal vegetable . top (if desired) with enough mayonnaise to mop up excess with bread. “For me, it’s like fitting in a little bit with French culture,” says the Australian chef, who has lived in France for five years, of his silver medal. “It was an affirmation that I was able to be a part of it.”

He’s baffled that more people aren’t making egg-mayo at home, especially as it’s becoming harder to find in restaurants and bistros. During a recent trip to Paris, seized by a craving, he walked for half an hour, looking in vain for menus. “They still had leek vinaigrette, but I didn’t see any egg mayonnaise!” The few he finds often cost around seven euros for two halves – all the more reason people make it at home.

But if the simplicity of the dish is part of its appeal, it may also be its downfall, at least for the home cook.

“It’s actually harder to do something so simple so well,” Edwards says, “because there’s nothing to hide.”

“With so few components,” agrees Peppler, “you have to get every one of them – from mayonnaise and egg to seasoning and presentation – just right.”

How to make egg mayo

For Peppler, “just right” starts with a seven-minute egg: the yolk should be jammy and the white firm but never chewy.

“I can’t say I’ve ever started them in cold water at the end of a long day and was hoping for the best,” she says, “but if I want to have total control, I bring the water to a boil and lower them with a slotted spoon.” Edwards starts in hot but not quite boiling water to keep the shells from cracking, cooking for eight minutes and 40 seconds, precisely, before transferring them to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. To peel its eggs, Martel relies on a technique gleaned from Jacques Pépin. “You drain them, but they’re still hot, and you shake that pan really vigorously, and all the shells crack and become a little cracked skin, and they slide right off.”

As for the mayonnaise, it must of course be made from A to Z.

Martel has tried many different methods, from blending in a Vitamix to a food processor. The key, she says, is finding a visual cue – something she accepts is more difficult for home cooks who “didn’t grow up making mayonnaise with a wooden spoon, like big -mother taught you that”. (Of course, if Grandma taught you how to make mayonnaise in France, she may have also shared that there are a few days a month you shouldn’t: a pervasive myth in France is that mayonnaise of a menstruating woman be cursed split, which Elise Thiébaut, author of This is my bloodcalls one of the “great superstitions linking eggs and menstruation”.)

But mayonnaise isn’t that hard to master, whether you’re on your period or not.

“People are scared,” Edwards says, especially of splitting mayonnaise. “But you can always fix it if you have more eggs!” Making a new emulsion of egg yolk and mustard and stirring in the broken mayonnaise, he says, will make it look like new. The ideal mayonnaise, according to Greenspan, should be “well seasoned” and thick. “The mayonnaise should be thin enough to coat the egg,” she says, “then when you slice it, the mayonnaise kind of runs down that slice.”

For his recipe, Edwards uses “a lot of mustard” and, in a traditional move that nevertheless goes against what many French people think, good quality sunflower oil rather than olive oil. for a neutral flavor. Once you get the basics down, however, Greenspan notes that egg-mayo is “just made to be played with.”

“Once you learn how to make mayonnaise, and once you get the eggs just the way you want them, you can go crazy with it!”

She occasionally seasons her mayonnaise with sesame oil and rice vinegar, sprinkling the eggs with sesame seeds; Edwards infuses the oil for his mayonnaise with smoked morteau sausage; Pepper’s version sees a bright green, garlicky parsley mixed right into the sauce.

“It’s mostly the embodiment of a paradox that today fuels our food culture,” says Rubin, “one of those very popular dishes that have taken a chic turn.” But egg-mayo is perhaps best when it’s simplest: a free-range egg coated in mayonnaise and topped with herbs – Greenspan likes chives or chervil. Pushing it too far misrepresents it, as Edwards saw in the contest’s own rules. “Some people swayed and got an ostrich egg,” he says. “Immediately they were disqualified.”

At best, it’s a dish that fuels nostalgia – even for someone who didn’t grow up on it. “I feel like that first bite of egg mayonnaise sets you up for the next one,” Greenspan says. “You kind of know the dish. Unless you start playing with it, the classic dish is recognizable from the first bite.”