Open allure: Jan Steen’s The Oyster Girl

Kisses in the dark

Choose ambience over aphrodisiacs for Valentine’s Day says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Eating In

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


“Scientific experiment shows,” proclaimed my English poetry primer, “that moonlight on stained glass does not produce this effect.” The footnote was to a line in The Eve of St Agnes — the only poem with a description of sexual intercourse approved for young minds — in which “warm gules” appear like brothel-neon on the heroine’s “fair breast”, while “her fragrant bodice creeps rustling to her knees.” (Maybe Keats didn’t know that St Agnes defended her virtue even in a bordello.) 

The hero — “ethereal, flushed and like a throbbing star” — produces a feast of aphrodisiacs from a handily placed cupboard. Then “into her dream he melted, as the rose blendeth its odour with the violet.”

The two most notable saints in the calendar for January and February, Agnes and Valentine, have been appropriated, despite their chastity, as pretexts for erotic eating. In a cold climate, love is a seasonal dish.

Keats’s menu had the typical taste and texture of a love feast: sweet, sticky and squelchy, featuring “quince and plum and gourd and jellies soother than the creamy curd.” The “spicèd dainties” had the extra allure of exoticism — “from silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.” The original St Agnes would have been unmoved. She dismissed her suitor’s gifts, somewhat unappetisingly, as “nutriment of sin and food of death”. 

The legend, however, that lovers appear to sleeping virgins on 19 January licensed Keats’s fantasy. The search for effective aphrodisiacs has continued undaunted. Readers who are planning menus for St Agnes’s eve and St Valentine’s Day may appreciate a word to the wise.

Magicians and procurers in every society have encouraged the quest. Thrashed borage seeds, according to one school of thought, were the aphrodisiac of choice in paleolithic times. They don’t work for me. 

Pythagoras, mythicized as a mathematician and proto-scientist, was a magus, whose followers believed that he had a golden penis. “Thou wretch,” he warned the erotically susceptible, who knew that proteins feed passion, “abstain from beans!” Most dietitians have detected no effect except flatulence.

Although eating and sex seem to be complementary, every alleged aphrodisiac is a kiss in the dark

Truffles are widely fancied. Brillat-Savarin put their reputation to the test. “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” he replied to those who accused him of “an investigation indelicate and likely to provoke cynical laughter. The pursuit of truth is always praiseworthy.” One of his interviewees confessed that her guest became uncharacteristically importunate after a supper of “superb truffled fowl from Périgord . . . What can I say, Monsieur? I put it all down to the truffles.”

As my primer might have said, scientific experiment does not endorse her inference. The High Sexuality Diet, however, reports that truffles contain hormones “identical to those contained in the male boar’s saliva at the time of mating”. Which part of the anatomy is the author trying to pull? 

Supposedly suggestive foods — asparagus tips, felt between fingers, or the slither and softness of the vulva-shaped mussel — recall squelching organs and sexual fluids to suitably disposed minds. 

The open allure of the oyster, from whose shell Aphrodite sprang, was a stimulant to lust in the Dutch Golden Age: what else is Jan Steen’s “Oyster Girl” offering on the side? There is no nakedness as appetising as a peeled grape’s.

None of these nostrums works. Although eating and sex seem to be complementary, mutually lubricating forms of sensuality, every alleged aphrodisiac is a kiss in the dark. 

An affective atmosphere is more conducive than affected food

Some recipes are unfalsifiable because impractical or ironic. One of Norman Douglas’s in Venus in the Kitchen, begins, “Take a young crane.” Another involves “several brains of male sparrows and a half quantity of the brains of pigeons which have not yet begun to fly”. We are in the realm of love-spells and amulets, though Douglas also recommends, equally improbably, chicken curry. Some, I suppose, like it hot.

St Agnes and St Valentine will approve eaters who honour their feasts with genuinely heart-warming, chill-dispelling dishes, instead of dabbling in pagan love-rites. For the former, a navarin of one of the saint’s freshly shorn lambs is ideal: trysting virgins are supposed to prepare for her feast by weaving the wool. 

Caramelise fatty pieces, then cook slowly to melting point, with garlic cloves, baby turnips, and tiny carrots. Before serving, sprinkled with parsley and chopped anchovies, add whole tomatoes and a splash of brown sherry. 

St Valentine’s reputation for putting lovers together may derive from the nesting habits of doves that coo in February: this year, his feast occurs just before Lent; so pigeon’s breasts will suit him, in a rich stock, stirred with a slug of sloe gin, mushrooms, cream and abundant sage and garlic. 

If on the other hand, you want to try Keats’s menu, the ingredients are still available. The lovers never got round to eating them: they had other priorities to discharge before their hurried elopement. It goes to show that an affective atmosphere is more conducive than affected food.

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