“They’re the Viagra of the Thames,” said a fishmonger at Billingsgate market, pointing to his dejected school of jellied eels. Slimy, silver coils glazed in what looked like wallpaper paste; they did not seem immediately passion inciting. “I’ll sell them for £3,” he said. I was starting to think this salacious salesman was resorting to some desperate attempt to offload his final eels and pack-off home. He was probably feeding the previous luckless customer lines about the libidinous properties of his whelks. I did not find out for myself, but I did discover that some truth lay behind the curious sales pitch.
Jellied eels became part of the staple diet for east Londoners back in the early 19th century, as they were the only creatures that could survive life in the heavily polluted Thames. Although this resilience to the city’s toxins was sadly not enough to retain their popularity with London dwellers, they are still considered a delicacy in other parts of the world. Across the Mediterranean Sea, in a country renowned for it’s romance and cuisine, eels, or rather Anguilla, is a typical starter for an Italian Christmas eve dinner, eaten with chilli to awaken the palate before the main meal. In Asia they are known for their stamina-boosting effects, which have led them to be used as aphrodisiacs in Japanese and Chinese cooking. Perhaps this is why eels have become an endangered species.
In ancient times, aphrodisiacs were sought after for medicinal reasons. They were believed to enhance fertility by ensuring male and female potency, but they were soon to become essential ingredients for more hedonistic motives.
Cacao beans were essential players for any amorous Aztec, and in ancient Mexico people would heat chocolate believing the drink it produced was sent by the deities to stir passion. It is rumoured that Aztec drank 50 goblets of chocolate each day to enhance his sexual abilities- a potentially powerful advert if Cadburys was to project a similar message. The cocoa ambrosia was soon used by Europeans and became Dutch courage for infamous Italian lover Giacomo Casonova, who, far from giving women a box of Milk Tray, would have a glass of hot chocolate before seducing his conquests.
The reason behind chocolate’s allure is chemistry; it contains Phenylethylamine and Serotonin, the same chemicals that the human brain releases when experiencing pleasure. Today, this god-given treat is a common gift on Valentine’s Day and comes in the forms of gift-wrapped hearts, body paint and novelty underwear. The recent surge of ‘designer chocolate’ has used the carnal effects of cocoa beans as a major selling point.
When taken with red wine, another louche liquid, the effect is alchemic, as the foodstuffs are said to react to produce an enhanced pleasure, making the wine and chocolate hampers on aphrodite-chocolates.co.uk a very strategic purchase.
Lovers with a sweet tooth will also be happy to learn that honey, the nectar of Aphrodite, is considered a golden emblem of sexuality. In Persia, newly married couples would drink honey every month to ensure a successful marriage- giving today’s term ‘honey-moon’. In medieval times, many convivialists filled their flagons with mead – a fermented drink made from honey – in the hope it would have the Midas touch on their sex lives.
Some other stimulants may seem more surprising. Garlic, a cause for alarm bells for many lovers, is used as a stir-in aphrodisiac for many dishes as it stimulates circulation and produces ‘a heat’ in the consumer. Mustard supposedly shares similar effects. While a caffeine hit is usually considered a morning stimulant as opposed to a nocturnal one, scientists have found that coffee excites the senses due to it’s high levels of dopamine, associated with the pleasure system of the brain- making it the perfect after dinner order.
The culinary secret to enticing passion is something we continue to explore, but nature’s pleasures work in mysterious ways. “The answer is simple though,” said the salesman laying out his scallops, no doubt of the seductive variety, “For my wife, me cooking a meal is enticing enough.”