What makes a food romantic? Oysters and steak Bearnaise are the food of love, yet cockles and spaghetti Bolognese are decidedly not. So, are some foods innately romantic, or could our associations with romantic food be more to do with cultural preferences, and what’s in season come February 14th, than anything else? Plus, does anyone really believe in aphrodisiacs? What better time to investigate what makes a food ‘romantic’ than Valentine’s Day.
“The concept of a truly aphrodisiac food is on a par with that of finding a crock of gold at the end of a rainbow,” says the late Alan Davidson in his sceptical entry on aphrodisiacs in The Oxford Companion to Food. Certain foods spring to mind when you think of aphrodisiacs – oysters of course, asparagus, chocolate and strawberries. But these associations are most likely cultural rather than scientific. People have wanted to believe in aphrodisiacs for millennia – the word comes from the Greek adjective pertaining to Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Different societies have believed in different aphrodisiacs over the years. “A study of the literature on the subject shows that most foods have, in one culture or another, been perceived as aphrodisiacs,” wrote Davidson. The context of a food can change over time, too. We may think of oysters as the ultimate romantic food now, but in Victorian times they were the food of the poor.
Certain foods may have gained a reputation as aphrodisiacs because of their nutritional properties. Oysters are a good source of zinc, which supports fertility. Dark chocolate is a source of iron and magnesium, while asparagus is packed with calcium, magnesium and zinc. All these minerals support a healthy immune system. So if these foods make you frisky it’s because you feel better after eating them than a big bag of tortilla chips, rather than because of any magical, mood-altering properties.
A truly romantic food is one that’s in season. Yes, you could dip asparagus spears in truffle butter and strawberries in melted chocolate come February 14th, but neither of these ingredients is in their prime in winter. Oysters are, however, which could explain their romantic associations as much as anything else.
So too are sweet, delicate scallops; at the beautiful Waterton Park Hotel in Yorkshire you can eat them on Valentine’s Day with sea bass, soft leeks and a saffron butter sauce. Venison is still in season; Smiths at Gretna Green Hotel in Scotland has home-cured and smoked venison to share on its Valentine’s menu. Blood oranges and fragrant pomegranates add both exoticism and deep reds and pinks to the proceedings, while passionfruit makes the perfect seasonal addition to dessert – try the passion fruit brulee at Smiths.
Romantic foods are often luxurious ones. Of course, you can conjure up a great meal for a loved one on any budget, but premium ingredients transport you from everyday eating into a different, indulgent mind set. Steak is always popular on Valentine’s Day: bavette is delicious flash-fried if you’re on a budget, rib eye is a failsafe if you have a little more to spend. Dining out on V Day is the perfect chance to indulge in a cut you wouldn’t try at home – a chateaubriand to share perhaps, or the tender beef fillet steak with celeriac puree at Waterton Park. Lobster is also good at this time of year, along with smaller seafood like clams: Smiths is doing a gourmet take on surf and turf with pressed pork belly and clams.
Perhaps the most important factor in making a food romantic is its personal associations. On our first date, my husband and I went to a tapas restaurant. We shared a bizarre tapa of crusty bread topped with cream cheese and a single blackberry inexplicably skewered on top. I don’t remember what else we ate but that weird dish made us laugh and broke the ice. Perhaps I’ll dig some blackberries out of the freezer and put them on toast. If there’s a dish you tried on your first foreign break together, or that you made the first time you cooked for your partner, why not recreate it. It’s probably nicer than our blackberry toast and the happy memories it brings up will make it a romantic dish to you, even if it’s not to anyone else. Unless of course, you first meal together was a 2am kebab, in which case you’re better off sticking to steak. Some foods have become romantic classics for a reason.
Katy Salter is our food writer. She contributes to most of the UK’s major food titles.