Cine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus is the Latin maxim that loosely translates as “love grows cold without food and wine.” Eros and appetite, libido and hunger, food and love are linked together like a man and woman in an amorous embrace. Even the act of eating has romantic connotations, and certain foods evoke sensations that are similar to lovemaking: they make our skin turn flush and cause blood to stream through the veins. A single glass of wine can leave you with a lingering feeling of warmth, happiness and inhibition.
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, there is no better time to experiment with a few of the irresistibly romantic ingredients and recipes that are, for various reasons, considered aphrodisiacs. “Most cultures all around the world have established a link between food and love,” says Alex Revelli Sorini, an Italian author and food writer who recently published a book on aphrodisiacal foods. “The simple truth is that any food can be an aphrodisiac as long as you really love to eat it.”
Still, Revelli Sorini understands that certain foods are widely considered to be associated with love, female fertility and male prowess, and it’s usually for one of three reasons. First, the food in question might have a mythological association with love. Italy’s Tortellino pasta is an excellent example: Legend says the shapely pasta was invented by a tavern owner who had fallen in love with a countess who often stayed as his guest. One night, he peeked through the keyhole to catch a glimpse of her beauty, but was only able to see her bellybutton through the opening. Inspired by the vision, he rushed back to the kitchen and created a pasta that resembled her navel.
The second reason a food is considered aphrodisiacal is purely personal: it is because of the emotional feelings it evokes. That may be because the food was served at a particularly romantic restaurant with the appropriate music and light. Or, it may just be because you really like the taste of the food in question. A few years back, a group of researchers in Chicago determined that the smell of pizza triggers sexual impulses. The fragrant aromas of melted mozzarella, steaming tomato and sweet basil stimulated blood flow to the essential organs, they determined. (It would take a football team of Freuds to probe the motives, biases, methods and conclusions of that study.
Lastly, the potentially aphrodisiacal food may actually contain trace amounts of chemicals and hormones (like serotonin) that are produced by our brain when we fall in love or feel happy. This is true of both chocolate and chili. “But, you’d need to eat such a huge quantity of those things, it’s impossible to prove for sure,” says Revelli Sorini.
Long before the little blue pill was available, alchemists and chemists studied love potions and magic formulas aimed at provoking carnal desire, stimulating love, promoting fertility and curing impotency. It’s nice to think that today the great chefs of the world might be taking on that task in part. If they do, here are some of the love-inspired ingredients they might employ:
5 cups homemade broth (or 1 cup canned beef
broth with 4 cups of water)
2 tablespoons beef marrow, diced
(substitute with sausage meat or bacon)
2 cups Arborio rice
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄3 cup onion, finely chopped
1⁄3 teaspoon powdered saffron
1⁄3 cup parmigiano cheese, grated
Fry the diced bone marrow (or sausage or bacon) in a pot with 1 tablespoon of the butter, the olive oil and chopped onion. Cook over medium heat until the onions are transparent. Add the rice, stirring quickly with a wooden spoon so that the grains are evenly coated. Add 1⁄2 cup of beef broth and keep stirring until the liquid is absorbed. Add another 1⁄2 cup and repeat this pattern for 20 minutes always taking care to keep the rice moist with the broth. Add the saffron. Continue adding broth and stirring until the rice is tender but firm to the bite. Turn off the heat and add the remaining butter and stir until it is melted. Add the grated cheese and salt to taste. Serve hot. Makes six servings.
Wine Recommendations: This dish boasts delicate aromatic tones from the saffron, backed by sweet notes from the rice, and a thick, creamy mouthfeel. There’s also the unctuous feel of the sausage, olive oil and melted cheese that suggests a pairing with a young red wine. We found two romantically-themed Syrahs that could fit the bit. The first is Fabrizio Dionisio 2007 Podere il Castagno Syrah from the Cortona area of Tuscany, with fresh berry layers and a rich feel in the mouth. The Chocolate Box 2007 Dark Chocolate Shiraz from the Barossa Valley offers similar characteristics.
Sautè di Cozze
(Mussel Soup with Hot Chili)
2 pounds fresh mussels in their shells
1⁄3 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1 cup plum tomatoes, skinned and chopped
Hot chili, flaked
4 slices of toasted bread with raw garlic
rubbed over each
To clean the mussels, soak them in a basin for ten minutes and drain water. Refill the basin with cold water and scrub each mussel with a brush. With your hand, pull away the fibers that protrude from each shell and drain and refill the basin once more until all sand and debris is gone. In a large pot, add the oil and garlic and sauté the garlic until golden. Add the chopped tomato, hot chili and salt to taste. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Add parsley last. Turn the heat to high, pour in all the mussels and cover the pot. Cook until all the mussels have opened their shells and stir with a large wooden spoon to spread the sauce evenly. Discard any mussels that fail to open. Place a piece of garlic toast at the bottom of each bowl and ladle the sauté di cozze over the bread. Makes four servings.
Wine Recommendations: This versatile dish could pair with a long list of wines thanks to the seafood taste of the mussels that call out for a mineral and acidity-rich wine. The strong aromatics of the garlic and chopped parsley also suggest an upfront, uncomplicated wine that will not get lost against these strong flavors. Italy’s Tommasi produces a romantic twosome: a red blend called Romeo and a white blend called Giulietta. Either one of these well-priced, informal wines could work.
Myths and Folklore of Aphrodisia
Apple. Before Adam, Eve and the “forbidden fruit” (the Latin word for apple comes from malum, or “bad”), apples were a symbol of love. In Greek myths, the athletic Atalanta vowed to marry any man who could beat her in a foot race. Hippomenes fell in love with her and asked Aphrodite for help. The Goddess of Love gave him three golden apples and instructed him to throw them on the track. Atalanta got distracted and lost the race.
Artichoke. An incarnation of the young nymph Cinara (who was turned into a thorny flower by her lover’s jealous wife so that he may never touch her again), artichokes are often seen as a symbol of the female sex.
Asparagus. They push from the earth like phalluses, so a man who eats many asparagus…enugh said.
Basil. From India to Italy, basil (a proven stimulant) is said to bring passion and love to those who eat it. In the folklore of southern Italy, a woman who places a pot of basil at her window at night is prompting a visit from her lover.
Chili. Hot peppers release endorphins to block pain and cause a sensation of pleasure. Chili’s spicy heat, bright color and suggestive shape make them one of the most popular aphrodisiacs (they are even used against baldness). Familiar side effects after you eat one—sweating, blushing and a racing heart—have reinforced those lovemaking associations.
Chocolate. The deliciously dark dessert contains minute traces of the same chemical substances (namely, the hormone serotonin) produced by our bodies when we fall in love.
Garlic. Once considered a cure for impotency, garlic has antioxidants and essential oils that carry antibiotic effects.
Honey. Bee stings were said to be tiny wounds to the flesh by Cupid and his arsenal of love-spiked arrowed. Honey’s associated with Cupid helped cement its reputation as sweet treat for lovers.
Lemons. Because a lemon tree expends so much energy to produce its fruit and some species flower numerous times per year, lemons are a symbol of eternal love and faithfulness in marriage.
Mollusks, oysters and fish. All seafood is considered aphrodisiac because it is associated with the birth of Venus, Goddess of Love. Mythology says the phallus of the heavens fell from the sky and landed in the sea (the womb of Mother Earth). In doing so, it created thousands of species of fish. It also gave birth to a daughter named Venus (or Aphrodite). She was delivered to us on a shell (a metaphor for the vulva and birthing) and wherever her feet touched earth, powerful plants and flowers sprang to life. Those herbs and plants are the earth’s first “aphrodisiacs.” Fish are a powerful Christian symbol of life and continuity. Oysters are high in minerals and muscle-building glycerin, and are considered an aphrodisiac for their feminine taste and form. But much of their symbolism comes from the birth of Venus mythology.
Mushrooms and truffles. Wild mushrooms are believed to have many mystical properties. Truffles emit a powerfully pungent perfume that is delicate and irresistible at the same time. Female pigs are used to scout for truffles because the musky smell reminds them of male pigs.
Nuts. Because of their hard, protective exterior, nuts are a symbol of longevity and marriage. The almond in particular is associated with fertility because its trees are among the first to spring fresh flowers each year. Chestnuts (from the word “chaste”) symbolize virginity and virtue because a second shell and a spiky casing protect them.
Pasta and bread. Foods made from grains are associated with Ceres, who was the Goddess of agriculture and fertility.
Pomegranate. Also known as the “apple of love,” this ruby colored fruit was once the basis of an aphrodisiac wine made by the ancient Greeks. It is often seen as a symbol of unity, friendship and brotherly love because it carries so many seeds packed in such small chambers.
Meat. Raw meat in particular is associated with carnal pleasures. Succulent beef, for example, evokes gluttony and lust. Rabbit, on the other hand, is suggestive because of the animal’s ease in reproduction.
Saffron. The queen of female aphrodisiacs, saffron associated with female homosexuality in part because it is named after Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess who was born on the island of Lesbos. In general it is considered a female stimulant and was believed to strengthen the uterus.
Wine. The ultimate love potion in liquid form, wine has an eternal connection to Eros. Grapes are a widely used symbol of fertility in many of the world’s important religions and the word “vino” is a direct descendant of Venus, Goddess of Love. Ancient imbibers engaged in orgiastic Bacchanalian rites and hedonistic cults as a way of celebrating the magical properties of wine. Today, we associate the seductive inebriant with good company, good health and as a way to break down barriers when trying to establish a romantic connection with that special someone.