An aphrodisiac is an ingredient, a substance or a dish that is meant to enhance lust and passion. The desire to do so is supposedly as old as humanity. The word aphrodisiac comes from the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, who would carry a number of mysterious love potions at her belt – aphrodisiacs.
The medical idea of “humours” – the four qualities that regulate human bodies – was developed during classical antiquity and was generally regarded as a pillar stone of medical science throughout the Middle Ages. Even foods were categorised the same way, resulting in the believe that everything hot and spicy like pepper, garlic, onions, ginger or mustard would lead to sexual excitement, while cold and wet foods like cucumbers or pickled vegetables helped to stay abstinent. The Roman poet Martial (1st century AD) wrote:
“If your wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions in plenty.”
A concoction made from garlic with coriander was regarded as a wonder drink for that purpose. On the contrary, medieval monastic kitchens prepared dishes for monks and nuns accordingly, abstaining from all too spicy food. Anyways, I would not recommend garlic in quantities as an aphrodisiac, due to obvious reasons.
The pomegranate with its sumptuous, blood-red colour and its many seeds it was a symbol of the uterus and of female fertility. The pomegranate is, together with the quince, one of the attribute of Aphrodite, and is often regarded as the fruit of temptation that Eve gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden. In the 16th century, the Italian medical practitioner Mattioli recommended the powder of dried pomegranate peels for external use for both men and women.
Speaking of powders, one of the weirdest aphrodisiacs of history originated in early modern Europe: mumia, a powder obtained by crushing ancient Egyptian human mummies. It was ingested orally. This disgusting and uttermost undignified idea apparently has its origins in a mistranslation from the Arabic word “mumiya”, a bitumen-like substance used as a general tonic in Greek and Middle Eastern traditional medicine, which was also used in the embalming process of Egyptian mummies. A good reminder of the value of correct translations.
During the Baroque period, members of the French nobility hosted erotic banquets where women sucked asparagus and men indulged in oysters. At the court of Louis XV another concoction was used: a mix of raw egg yolk and ginger. Raw egg yolks can be found as a tonic in many parts of the world, sometimes mixed with alcohol to enhance the effect. An eggnog is nothing else. The late medieval Arabic erotic manual “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight” describes the consumption of enormous quantities of eggs – somewhat exaggerated – as key to male potency.
In general one can say that the presentation is as important as the actual ingredients, as well as the quantities. A meal destined to seduce and excite should be strengthening but not too filling either. A digestive coma is very counterproductive to the intended cause.
In this video we will have a look at some of the substances that were considered an aphrodisiac in different periods of our history, and what we can learn from it today, before preparing little sensual menu based on the more palatable ingredients discussed here, featuring both of Aphrodite’s attribute fruits, the pomegranate and the quince:
- Green salad with pomegranate seeds and walnuts
- Chicken and quince stewed in spiced wine
You need: mixed or green salad leaves, a pomegranate, olive oil, chicken breast, one or two quinces (depending on the size), white wine, salt, pepper, nutmeg, calamus or ginger, parsley, poppy seeds (optional), very fresh eggs, sugar and marsala or a similar dessert wine.
Stay tuned – there are more historical recipes to come on my culinary archaeology channel. In these little videos I focus on easy-to-reproduce recipes (“try this at home“). For complex historical dishes and cooking techniques or a full feast visit me for one of my historical cooking workshops in Puglia.