On a recent jaunt through the Athens airport, I heard the best sales pitch ever between an English-speaking male tourist and a stout, blond saleswoman at the Hellenic Gourmet Shop (which btw has some of the best Greek gourmet products in town). While examining a jar of walnuts afloat in thick Greek honey, the saleswoman darted across the floor exclaiming “Greek Viagra,” with a huge, satisfied smile on her face. The guy bought two!
I guess from our very first taste of love, man (and woman) has sought the magic potion to nourish the libido (and by extension continue the species). Science, that bastion of eroticism, categorically denies the existence of aphrodisiacs. Folk wisdom and old wives’ tales tell a different story, though.
In Greece alone, from the time our forebears walked around in sandals and robes to the present day, when stiletto heels and Prada are the sartorial seducers, the litany of foods people believe to be aphrodisiac is long. Bulbs for one. Not just any bulb, but the small, bitter, pearly pickled bulb of the wild hyacinth, what the Greeks call volvoi and the Sicilians know as lampascione. In ancient times, hyacinth bulbs were turned into an aphrodisiac by cooking them with honey, sesame, silphium, and cheese, all of which countered their innate (and anti-erotic) bitterness. Another ancient aphrodisiac was said the be salep, the pulverized bulb of a wild orchid that is still made into a viscous drink and sold on the streets of Athens in winter. Galen suggested that only the large bulbs were capable of tickling the libido.
What most people have thought of as aphrodisiac over the ages has less to do with chemical composition and more to do with shape. Sometimes, chemistry and shape work together to enhance the sexy image of a given food. Take bananas, for example, which are both phallic and chock full of vitamin B and calcium, which help the body produce sex hormones.
Other foods, such as figs, bring to mind female genitalia. almonds, have been said to look like, well, guess…On the other hand, pine nuts, which were part of an ancient recipe, together with honey and almonds, were believed by the ancient Greeks to battle impotence.
Queen of all aphrodisiacs though is by far the oyster, whose aroma brings to mind the smell of pheromones. The slurping and sucking involved in downing a fresh, raw oyster also have their fair share of sexual inferences.
If oysters are queen, then chocolate surely is king. Chocolate indeed has been proven to put us in a good mood (something this author can attest to); it’s not by accident that chocolate is the most popular gift on Eros’ holiday.
The notion of an aphrodisiac food might just be that – a thought – unproven by science yet time tested. After all, what’s the surest way to a man’s heart, but through the stomach? Greeks have another way of expressing the symbiosis between food and sex: Hungry bears don’t dance!
Make sure you try out the Valentine’s Day Specials!