Books: With a good pinch of salt

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The Independent Culture
APHRODITE: The Love of Food and the Food of Love by Isabel Allende trs Margaret Sayers Peden, Flamingo pounds 16.99

ISABEL ALLENDE, mistress of magical realism, has produced a memoir of the senses to fulfil her long-cherished ambition to write about eroticism. Allende declares that for her, the erotic is inseparable from the love of food and wine. This passion led her to investigate aphrodisiacs and Aphrodite is the result. The first two-thirds of the book is a mixture of advice, reminiscences and folklore. Stories, recipes and lists of erotic ingredients - vegetables, forbidden herbs, liquors, seafood, "sins of the flesh" - cascade from her pen with recollections of meals and loves past and present.

The publishers evidently believe this is a book to treasure and savour, with its weighty, glossy paper, exquisite illustrations (see right) and reproductions of paintings by Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Martin Maddox and Julio Galn.

Friends and family became guinea pigs, with and without their knowledge, in practical trials of her new-found knowledge. Many of their experiences are recorded; one such volunteer, the artist Robert Shekter, contributed the nymphs and satyrs cavorting through these pages. Even her mother, Panchita Llona, was co-opted to test and refine the recipes. (Llona's husband is reported as having an extra bounce or two in his step now.)

Allende, improvising with Llona's ingredients, admits to being a slap- happy cook who is as likely to asphyxiate as seduce with all the overpowerful flavours in her dishes jostling for attention. So, like her stories, the recipes should probably be taken with a generous pinch of salt.

Unlike Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate, where the recipes and remedies were part of each installment of the novel, Allende has not linked the recipes to the main text but corralled them into the last third of the book, with a few notable exceptions such as "Panchita's Curanto en Olla" (recommended for orgies). There isn't an index, so this is a book to browse through for information, rather than last-minute inspiration. Leafing through exotic recipes designed to seduce, such as Odalisque's salad and shrimp pica pica, I found space squandered on staples found in any cookery book - stocks, French dressing, bechamel sauce - and also a "Spring Shower salad" whose seductive ingredients are the leftovers in your fridge. The latter may or may not hit the spot depending upon your devotion to economy.

Quantities are for two, "and with a little restraint they will do four". Restraint? When in the preceding 200 pages Allende has been urging bacchanalian excess? In trying to be all things to all men, Allende leaps from subject to subject, often contradicting herself and at times veering from advice which is patronising to embarrassing. But at her best, she spins tales which would give Sheherazade a run for her money. For this, many will forgive her capricious approach.

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