‘Cookery means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe, and of Calypso of Helen and of Rebeckah and of the Queen of Sheba…’
John Ruskin (1819-1900) from a talk to the girls of Winnington Hall School, later published in 1865 as part VII "Home Virtues" of "The Ethics of the Dust".
Right then. Let’s get one thing clear at the start, this has been academic research in the interests of leaving no stone unturned for you my blog friends. Nothing has been tested in the field, or anywhere else for that matter.
There is a long history – going back to the Romans at least, that certain foods may increase your desire, your potency or your performance. So just for you, I have been reading up on the history of these things in connection with the Feast of St Valentine, Patron Saint of lovers.
Unfortunately, Alan Davidson (my hero – he should be canonised) says that across the world most foods have been regarded as aphrodisiacs at one time or another and that there’s no point in going any further, it’s all a fallacy.
That said, the myths continue and food aphrodisiacs seem to fall into different categories. There are those that resemble what my Dad used to call ‘your bits and pieces’ such as asparagus, raspberries or figs, or food that by its sensual nature might put you in the right mood, like the icy oyster which M.F.K. Fisher called ‘a lusty bit of nourishment’. Finally there are those fruits like the pomegranate which symbolise fecundity and which I mentioned last April in connection with the Roman Feast 'Cerealia'.
Films have found food as a good metaphor for the other thing too..... there's Juliette Binoche seducing a whole town with 'Chocolat', Joan Greenwood and Albert Finney in 'Tom Jones' and remember the fig reference in ‘Women in Love’? and the woman in the diner in 'When Harry Met Sally' then there's 'Babette's Feast' and 'Delicatessen'....
So food as sex is everywhere, as Frieda Kahlo knew...
Two cookery books on my shelves might help us. The first is ‘The Gentle Art of Cookery’ written in 1925 by Mrs Leyel and Miss Olga Hartley. There is a chapter called ‘Dishes from the Arabian Nights’, which starts with a quote from one of the tales;
‘She took spices and milk and onions and with little fish from the brooks, limes for sherbets, quails of the pit, then chicken livers upon a skewer with sliced ginger between. ‘I have seen something of the world’ she said ‘and there are but two sorts of women in it – those that take the strength out of a man and those who put it back.’
The chapter includes recipes such as imam bayildi, which is one of my favourite dishes, sesame cakes, Bulgarian Cream flavoured with rose water and cold chicken stuffed with pistachios. I like the sound of that.
Then I have an esoteric little number published in 1971, which is a reprint of Norman Douglas’s (good writer, nasty man) book called ‘Venus in the Kitchen’ first published in 1952 with a later forward by Graham Greene.
Douglas introduces the book by saying the recipes were collected slowly ‘for the private use and benefit of a small group of friends…’
He goes on to say ‘Not many years ago I met in the South of France, a Mr D.H. Lawrence, an English painter(sic) whom I interested in this subject and who certainly looked as if his own health would have been improved by a course of such recipes as I have gathered together’
Shades of Lady Chatterly there surely?
So ‘What’s in it?’ I hear you say tetchily –‘Get to the point woman!’
Here are a few recipes from Douglas’s ‘private collection’.
Almond soup, eel soup, hare soup, black risotto, crayfish a la sybarite, potted lobster, stewed crabs, turbot with champagne, oyster cocktail, caviar omelette, fried brains, lambs testicles, baked truffles, chicken breasts with truffles, paprika chicken, pork chops with fennel seeds, artichoke bottoms, celery a la Popoff, giant stuffed peppers, Pontiff sauce, elderflower fritters, pistachio cream and quince jelly.
I think Douglas is having a bit of a laugh at his friends' (and our) expense and given the richness of the dishes, expense is the operative word. However I like chicken paprika, I’ve made it for years, this is Douglas’s way, which is new to me.
Chicken Paprika a la Norman Douglas
Cut a young chicken into joints, fry in butter with one onion cut in rings. When browned remove the chicken, put it in a casserole and add a cup of good broth and a pinch of salt.
Let it simmer gently for half an hour. Dissolve a dessertspoonful of paprika in a quarter of a pint of milk in which you also put an equal amount of cream, and add to the chicken. Let it cook for another half hour.
So there we have ‘spices and milk and onions’ again …
I leave you with the immortal words of Ogden Nash.
Happy Valentine’s Day.