Valentine’s Day, a day celebrating love and affection between intimate companions is an opportunity for the gastronomically or romantically inclined, or both, to explore the aphrodisiac quality of foods. In the olden days, the idea that certain foods had aphrodisiac qualities was much more popular than today. Today, there’s too much science telling us it’s hogwash. But love is like religion; it requires faith, not reason. And making believe certain foods are aphrodisiacs is plain fun and does no harm to your reputation as a great lover.
The most celebrated of lovers was Giovanni Giacomo Casanova de Seingalt, arguably the most famous of Venetians, along with Marco Polo. Casanova, whose name is now synonymous with sexual exploits, was an adventurer, soldier, prolific author, international gambler, spy and a lover of women. And women loved him. He was a lover, not a skirt-chaser, although the two are sometimes confused. Nevertheless, his sexual escapades read like operatic plots.
Casanova’s belief in the power of food as an aphrodisiac is well known. “I have always liked highly seasoned food. … As for women, I have always found that the one I was in love with smelled good, and the more copious her sweat the sweeter I found it.” He believed Roquefort cheese was an aphrodisiac. “Lithe as a doe she spread the tablecloth, set two places and then served some Roquefort cheese with a wonderful glazed ham. Oh what an excellent pair are Roquefort and Chambertin [a wine] for stimulating romance and bringing a budding love affair to quick fruition.” About oysters, Casanova, who is reputed to have eaten 50 a day to boost his libido, said they are a spur to the spirit and to love. He often assured the ladies, before bedding them, that he had eaten nothing save a cup of chocolate and a salad of eggs dressed with olive oil from Lucca and vinegar from Marseilles. Eggs are a very popular aphrodisiac in many writings.
Antipasto course: Seduction
So for a Valentine’s Day menu, consider a meal that doesn’t have to be about the art of seduction, though that’s a nice way to think. And remember, both men and women seduce and are seduced. Remember to keep portions very small.
The place to start is an appetizer of raw oysters or a plate of asparagi alla Cupido, asparagus steamed with a sauce of tuna and caper foam. The Greeks, who considered asparagus an aphrodisiac, recommended that it be eaten in moderation. For your romantic evening, it is a light and refined dish best accompanied by a dry white wine and with Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” played in the background. However, raw oysters on the half shell are impossible to resist and their resemblance to the maidenhead is noted by great lovers. To eat it, follow Casanova’s advice: “I placed the shell on the edge of her lips and after a good deal of laughing, she sucked in the oyster, which she held between her lips. I instantly recovered it by placing my lips on hers.”
The oyster or the asparagus should be followed by a small salad, a lovers’ salad, an insalata degli innamorati of avocado stuffed with shrimp, celery and walnuts with pink mayonnaise. This delicious salad is easy and fast, able to be made in anticipation. Your romantic tête à tête can be had over this dish with some sparkling wine or rosé, and of course you will use one spoon and one-half avocado for the both of you.
The next course should be extravagant, but remember we are talking about your lover not your accountant. Foie gras de canard poêlé aux raisins blancs, pan-seared raw fois gras with green grapes is a dish you will both remember. You will not need much.
First course: Macaroni
A romantic dinner without macaroni is unthinkable. What better preparation than a dish we can name after our hero maccheroni alla Casanova. Casanova writes in his autobiography that cultivating and pleasing the senses was for his whole life his main preoccupation. Ho molto amato anche la buona tavola ed insieme tutte le cose che eccitano la curiosità … (I very much loved a good table and everything that excites the curiosity.) Some people have suggested that in Venice, in 1700, macaroni referred to gnocchi, but given that Casanova said Ho amato i piatti dal sapore forte: i maccheroni preparati da un bravo cuoco napoletano, (I love strongly flavored dishes: macaroni prepared by a good Neapolitan cook) it seems that he intended macaroni.
Maccheroni alla Casanova is made with bucatini seasoned with aromatics such as anchovies, tomato, black olives and red chile flakes. Keep in mind Casanova’s preference for spicy foods. A normal primo portion of macaroni would be four ounces. Here you should use less.
Main course: Seared Muscovy duck breast
The main course should not seem main, so again use sensibility in your portions. The seared Muscovy duck breast with Marsala orange sauce with red currants is made by sautéing shallots first in olive oil and butter then searing the duck and finishing it with duck glaze, fresh orange juice, sage, Marsala wine and fresh red currants, garnished with orange zest.
The smallest portion of Roquefort and apples should be served following the duck and finally, before retiring, a chocolate.
If you take less than three hours to eat or you feel full, you are going too fast and eating too much. Remember, for Valentine’s Day you are inspired by Casanova, not an American teenager.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photos, from top:
Oysters on the half shell. Credit: Nick Free
Clifford A. Wright’s Valentine’s Day dinner. Credit: Madeline Sitterly