Hungry for love? Forget the chocolates

As we've been forcibly reminded in recent weeks, Valentine is the patron saint of love (as well as of bee-keepers, epileptics and plague victims) -
so that many of us chose to mark his feast day with an orgy of our own. After all, "warm affection, attachment, liking or fondness" is the natural bedfellow of gluttony.

The truth is that Valentine's Day dinners are all about the OED's second definition of love: "sexual affection or passion or desire". The link is crudely obvious - in gratifying one sensual desire, we hope to encourage another.

But, passing over the drowsiness effected by three courses, seduction food is always tragically misguided. Beetroot is writ large on Valentine's menus because it can be used to turn ordinary dishes, such as risotto or cakes, bright pink - the colour of love. Or at least roughly the colour of a still-beating heart.

Then there's the stuff shaped like hearts (nothing says love like a novelty meatloaf!), which we can dismiss, in order to reach the constant of all Valentine's menus, chocolate - held to be romantic, and - even less credibly - sexy.

It's unclear if this reputation stems from the misapprehension that chocolate is an easy way to a woman's heart (and thus her bed) or if restaurateurs genuinely believe the saucy fondue, with its depressing chorus line of sickly strawberries, to be a 24-carat aphrodisiac. Montezuma may have enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate before visiting the harem, but in reality the levels of stimulants involved are so low as to have little impact on arousal.

Cheap body paint aside, it seems likely that any erotic effect occasioned by chocolate is purely psychological - as with other famous aphrodisiacs, such as oysters, which rely on a supposed similarity to sexual fluids or organs for their fruity reputation. In Britain this tends to mean asparagus, bananas and figs; in the more literal Far East they turn to the priapic geoduck clam, or the sticky sea cucumber for their kicks.

In fact, as Norman Douglas's extraordinary 1952 recipe collection, Venus in the Kitchen, proves, there's little that hasn't been held up as a passion-pricker at some point in history, from Pliny's favourite sows' vulvas to stewed sparrows - a bird denounced by the poet Sappho for its "notorious . . . wantoness and fecundity".

Fly me to the moon

Frankly, if unromantically, the only substances with proven aphrodisiac effect are those that stimulate blood flow towards the genitals, the most famous of which is the Spanish fly. Made from dried beetle wings, this is a powerful irritant that, when ingested, induces a burning sensation in the genito-urinary tract (saucy!), mimicking some of the sensations of arousal - and none of the pleasure. Sometimes found in the North African spice mix ras-el-hanout until its sale was banned in the early 1990s, local wit claimed it caused even spaghetti to stand bolt upright.

Other foodstuffs seduce for a different reason. Martha Stewart's menu of "classic romantic favourites", including filet mignon and butter-poached lobster, is a perfect example of a time-honoured technique: if you can't stun them with your looks, impress them with your wealth and sophistication. This might explain the appeal of the musky truffle, popularly - if absurdly - supposed to smell like sex.

Perhaps the food writer M F K Fisher has it best, however, when she observes, in an essay entitled "W is for Wanton", that "there is no true whip to love except the need itself, which needs no whip". In other words, if you both fancy each other, you can sit down to a feast of potato waffles, and still feel hungry afterwards. And if not - well, you've still got the waffles.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?