"Virtually non-existent... pathetically feeble... on a par with finding a crock of gold at the end of a rainbow." The entry on aphrodisiacs in the Oxford Companion to Food is wilting in the extreme, yet humanity remains intrigued by the potential of certain foodstuffs to stiffen the sinews, weaken restraint and stir up, as Shakespeare put it, "a tempest of provocation". This explains why Waitrose expects to sell more oysters on Thursday than it normally does in any week of the year.
Lots of people celebrate St Valentine's Day by sticking in the knife. Purchasers may be succumbing to a long-standing delusion but it is a curious coincidence that the oyster happens to contain more zinc per serving than any other foodstuff. This element, as one authority delicately puts it, is "important to male organ function".
But the main reason why oysters formed the first course in my epic road-test of alleged aphrodisiacs, extending over several weeks, is that I love them above all other foods. My slightly reluctant Tasting Panel for this uplifting regime (well, very reluctant when it came to sheep's testicles) was my wife. "Mmm, aren't they terrific?" I said, slurping down a briny swirl of flesh from the half-shell. Tucking in with slightly less enthusiasm, the TP expressed doubts about the suitability of oysters for a St Valentine's supper. "With shellfish, you need to check beforehand with your dining partner," she said. "If I didn't know about oysters, I'd think, 'What are those slimy things?' and reach for my coat."
"But you do know about oysters."
"Only because I've been eating them for the past 24 years, ever since I met you."
She may have a point, damn it. As Dr Johnson pointed out, "It was a brave man who first ate an oyster." Moreover, it is a trifle unusual, at least in western culture, to eat animals that are still alive. It is debatable whether one's dining companion would enjoy learning the information imparted by Mark Kurlansky in his book The Big Oyster: "If the oyster is opened carefully, the diner is eating an animal with a working brain, a stomach, intestines, liver and a still-beating heart." Of course, a good chew puts paid to all that. The idea that oysters should be swallowed whole is one of the weirdest of all gastronomic canards. For those who don't find the whole idea of oysters repulsive, there can be something a little, well, stimulating about these saline treats. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gets quite steamed up about the topic: "A slippery, salty oyster, recumbent and ready inside its glistening, pearl-lined cavity is undeniably arousing."
But you need to know the culinary CV of your putative sweetheart before presenting him or her with anything of an outré nature. Unfortunately, many aphrodisiacs are of an outré nature. Like whelks. A chap in the fish trade once told me that the reason South Korea forms the largest export market for UK whelks is due, in part at least, to a belief that they act as an aphrodisiac, at least for chaps. Apparently, sales dipped when Viagra came on the market. "Er, quite tasty," said the TP, once she had steeled herself sufficiently to take on board a forkful of my whelk, bacon and laver bread ragout. "But they are a bit chewy. I've had a whelk in my mouth for a minute now." Though I polished off the lion's share of the whelky stew, I cannot report much in the way of nocturnal arousal, unless you include a slight case of indigestion. "Well, there wasn't much in it for me," complained my wife.
With the possible exception of chocolate, which is rarely utilised as a main-course ingredient, the most promising aphrodisiac for women is the truffle. In her book Truffles, Elizabeth Luard explains the appeal of the stratospherically priced fungi: "Not to put too fine a point on it, the truffle reeks of sex." A botanist at an Italian centre for trufficulture told her: "When women come to work here, we warn them they're taking a risk." The pheromones emitted by the truffle ("heavy, musky, thrilling") had an effect on Luard when she visited the laboratory. "I observe that the chief botanist – bearded, fortyish, handsome in a rugged kind of way – has a lovely smile. See? It works."
Unfortunately, white truffles are out of season, while black Périgord truffles sell for £40-£80 apiece at London's Borough Market. The more affordable alternative of truffle oil certainly worked for Fergus Henderson, chef-patron of St John in Smithfield: "I cooked Margot pasta, cabbage and truffle oil and we've been married for 12 years." Less adventurously, we tried a salad of figs, prosciutto, goat's cheese and rocket (a vegetable banned in medieval monasteries due to its arousing properties) anointed with truffle oil. The penetrating aroma of truffles hung over the dish, which worked pretty well on the TP, at least gastronomically. "Mmm, figs and prosciutto," she sighed. "A marriage made in heaven."
Asparagus might be another possibility for female seduction, though the food writer Tamasin Day-Lewis complains it is "so obvious". It is also out of season in February. You can buy imported spears, but a protracted argument about the carbon footprint of Peruvian asparagus is unlikely to lead to bed. Eating the spears in the traditional style with fingers is not necessarily arousing either. The asparagus technique of a character in a PG Wodehouse novel is described as "Revolting. It alters one's whole conception of man as nature's last word." Then there is the aftermath of asparagus. The pong imparted to the urine of the asparagus-eater, akin to the mercaptans used as stenching agents in natural gas, is less than sexy.
Though chickpeas are a male aphrodisiac – according to the Kama Sutra, "If eaten every morning, you will be able to enjoy a hundred women" – my houmous went down very well with the TP. "I think any girl would be impressed if a man made houmous for her. Well, this one would." Another vegetable with unexpected erectile properties is the onion. In The Perfumed Garden, we are informed that when a certain Abu el Heiloukh ate onions "his member remained erect for 30 uninterrupted days". Though this is slightly excessive to requirements, the tasty allium seemed worth a bash, especially since Fergus Henderson's book Beyond Nose to Tail includes a recipe called Orbs of Joy for whole red onions braised in chicken stock. After six hours, the allium is transformed into a meltingly sweet, velvety sphere. "Like French onion soup without the soup," said the TP. "Yes, very seductive, but I think French onion soup is seductive as well."
For a topic that may not exist, there is a surprisingly voluminous library on aphrodisiacs. Marilyn Ekdahl Ravicz's work Erotic Cuisine: A Natural History of Aphrodisiac Cookery advocates such unexpected dishes as Coronation chicken, Indian curried eggs and bouillabaisse, but I went for squid sautéed in garlic. My rendition did not produce the required effect, possibly because I unwisely augmented the recipe with several home-grown chillies of previously untested potency. A Niagara of sweat and a beetroot-red face is not what women generally seek in a bed-mate. The best-known aphrodisiac book of modern times is Venus in the Kitchen edited by the author Norman Douglas, mentor of Elizabeth David, who had to leave Britain, in the well-worn phrase, "for the usual reason" (boys). Published in 1952, the 50-odd recipes accumulated during Douglas's exile in Capri range from the mundane (purée of celery) to the wildly exotic (simmered crane). It is a little difficult to lay your hands on sparrows' brains, skink and sow's vulva, though testicles of lamb can be obtained from Turkish supermarkets.
You get four little ones (ask the butcher to remove the membrane) for a little over £1. With a slight shiver, I sliced the testes in half and followed Douglas's recipe, which ironically came from the kitchen of a 16th-century pontiff: gently fry in butter with a pinch of saffron. Add a squeeze of lemon before serving. The unappetising, mousse-like result suggested that Douglas did not actually try out this dish, but the TP bravely had another go. Once they had been cut into strips and coated with breadcrumbs, fried lamb's testicles – a dish known in the US as Rocky Mountain oysters – proved most acceptable. "But not seductive," insisted the TP. "Especially when you know how much cholesterol they contain."
Almost any dish can have aphrodisiac properties in the right circumstances – the TP speaks highly of my Welsh rabbit or, if you prefer, rarebit – though erotic cuisine tends to be on the softish side. When top chefs were asked in the book Don't Try This at Home for "a dish that would seduce someone", the firm favourites were oozy. Tom Aikens suggests a homemade lasagne with "fresh pasta, a great sauce seasoned just right and a great béchamel with parmesan". Antonio Carluccio insists that "everyone would succumb to freshly made tagliolini served with a simple tomato sauce and basil". Diners should eat jointly from a single bowl "just like in The Lady and the Tramp". Rowley Leigh of Le Café Anglais proposes "scrambled eggs with truffles, caviar or sea urchin roe".
Truffles and caviar were ruled out for financial reasons, but we did happen to have a tin of sea urchin roe or, to be precise, ovaries, purchased by some eerie coincidence in the Sicilian honeymoon capital of Taormina. Cooked very slowly by the TP, the scrambled eggs were delicious. "That's because I make the most fabulous scrambled eggs," she pointed out immodestly. To my palate, the tinned slurry was only OK, with about half the potency of the fresh stuff scraped from the spiny shell. The TP was far more taken by this maritime delicacy. "It does something to my head that truffle does," she said. "Quite a sensuous thing." At least it made up for the whelks.
In 1949, the esteemed American food writer MFK Fisher, who devoted much thought to the relationship of food to sex (she once made a male visitor sit for an hour on a sandwich she had made before announcing it was ready to eat), wrote that "one highly expert bachelor-cook in my immediate circle swears by a recipe for breasts of young chicken, poached that morning or the night before, and covered with a dramatic and very lemony sauce made at the last minute in a chafing dish". This looked a sure-fire babe-melter. The sauce sounded simple enough, except Fisher omitted to give a recipe. I guessed that lemon juice flared with brandy would fit the description. The explosion of alcohol fumes was dramatic enough to satisfy the need for showing-off that lurks in most male cooks, but the result was lacking in oomph. "The presentation is rather rough-hewn, like something served up by Desperate Dan," complained the TP. "It needs parsley and a few more itsy-bitsy things. The taste is OK, but I love lemon. Aphrodisiacs should sharpen the senses."
Kind of her to say, of course, but the dish was hopeless in its intended effect. I was after seduction not sympathy.
It was high time to spice things up. Black pepper has long been regarded as conducive to a grind. In the ever-encouraging Kama Sutra, gents are informed that a pepper and honey anointment on their organ will "utterly devastate your lady". Quite. Instead, I procured the legendary Moroccan mixture of spices known as ras-el-hanout ("top of the shop") since it often contains 20 or more spices. According to Paula Wolfert's book Moroccan Cuisine, "The aphrodisiacs (Spanish fly, ash berries, monk's pepper) that appear in most formulae appear to be the reason why the mere mention of this mixture will put a gleam in a Moroccan cook's eye." Fortunately, the sample I obtained from the online suppliers Maroque did not contain the tell-tale blue fragments of the notorious Spanish fly or cantharides. I say fortunately because, contrary to its reputation, Spanish fly is not an aphrodisiac but a potent irritant and poison. The lethal dose is 0.03 grams. A lamb casserole made with the user-friendly version of ras-el-hanout proved to be gently spicy, richly unctuous and wholly delicious, though not notably sexy.
So what dishes did work for us? Heading back through the mists of time, the first meal I made for my wife was a plate of smoked-salmon sandwiches. Though this item does not rate a mention in the library of aphrodisiacs, it did the job OK. Equally efficacious was her first effort for me. Just to check if it still worked, we had another Mongolian hot-pot. This meal has much to recommend it as a form of culinary foreplay. Because you use chop-sticks to fish for various items from a pot of simmering stock (we use a large, cast-iron fondue pot over a methylated spirit burner), there is plenty of scope for gastronomic intimacy. You might steer your companion towards a succulent piece of scallop, while she hands over a juicy prawn. There might be a certain amount of light-hearted competition for a tasty bit of pork or a sugar-snap pea pod. The meal is prolonged but relatively light on the stomach. And, yes, since you ask, the dish has retained its effectiveness.
For pud, I'd be tempted to go for crêpes Suzette, a dish that not only allows the host to indulge in another alcoholic explosion but also relate the (completely spurious) story that the Suzette honoured by this dish was a poule de luxe admired by the Prince of Wales. (The one that became Edward VII.) However, the TP reckons that the dish is too hefty for an amatory supper. I suppose a dessert involving the endorphin blast of chocolate will be close to obligatory for the culinary seduction of modern females, but would-be Lotharios should remember the wise words of Ogden Nash: "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker." Moreover, a cocktail enables you to start the campaign of attack at a far earlier stage in the evening. Again, it is vital to avoid the obvious. A Knicker Dropper Glory will not get the evening off to a good start. Same goes for Between the Sheets, even though it dates back to the Twenties. Best stick to a Margarita, which also comes with a useful accretion of stories. Sadly, the suggestion that it was originally made for Rita Hayworth is as dubious as the Suzette yarn.
And if romance does not blossom on St Valentine's night, you could bear in mind the advice of Nora Ephron, author of When Harry Met Sally, concerning the appropriate dish when love goes pfft: "In the end, I always want potatoes... Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful." If your pash ends in mash, you can start planning your next romantic meal. Forget music, the food of love is food.