So. There’s Viagra, said to be reliable.
There’s alcohol, less reliable. ‘Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes….. It makes him, and it mars him,’ says the Porter in Macbeth.
There’s Love Potion Number 9, unreliable (because fictional). ‘It smelt like turpentine, it looked like India Ink. / I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink. / I didn’t know if was day or night. / I started kissing everything in sight. / But when I kissed a cop down on Forty-fourth and Vine / He broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number 9,’ sang The Clovers in their 1956 classic.
There are oysters, apparently, and anchovies, and sparrows (according to Aphrodite – and she should know). There are nettles. There is asparagus. There are potatoes. ‘Eaten with good butter, the juice of oranges and double refined sugar, they provoke lust, causing fruitfulness in both sexes,’ writes William Salmon in 1695. (Potato and orange – radical.)
Norman Douglas, hedonistic, bisexual, predatory, author of the novel South Wind and several successful travel books, lived for much of his life on the island of Capri, partly to escape the attention of the British police. His circle of friends included D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene and Elizabeth David the cookery writer. At the end of his life, under the pseudonym Pilaff Bey, he wrote a cookbook Venus in the Kitchen, a collection of aphrodisiac recipes which range from the practical, if expensive - Oysters in Champagne - to the wildly fantastical, not to say queasy-making - Sow’s Vulvas (apparently a favourite of Pliny), Leopard’s Marrow in Goat’s Milk.
The book was intended for those of his friends who were ‘anxious to preserve for as long as possible the vitality of their youth and middle age.’ It had a frisky frontispiece by Lawrence, who, according to Douglas, ‘certainly looked as if his own health would have been improved by a course of such recipes as I had gathered together.’ David thought that he had his tongue firmly in his cheek, and had never actually cooked any of the recipes in the book. But the ingredients have a kind of logic – anything wild, anything spicy, anything funky, anything resembling a sexual organ - and he knows how to construct a recipe.
Here he is at his most provocative, taking advice from Aphrodite:
‘Sparrows have always been praised as stimulants. Aristotle has written: Propter nimium coitum, vix tertium annum elabuntur.’ Hmm, I’m slightly out of my depth here. I think it means something like: Because of excessive sexual activity, a mere (?) three years slip by. Presumably after eating sparrow’s brains….. Effective! ‘Whoever wants to test this should take several brains of male sparrows and half quantity of the brains of pigeons which have not yet begun to fly. Take a turnip and a carrot and boil them in chick-pea broth. Cut in little slices the turnip and carrot, and put them in a deep pan with half a glass of goat's milk, and boil till the milk is almost absorbed. Now put in the brains and sprinkle them with powdered clover seeds. Take off from the fire as soon as they come to the boil, and serve hot.’
Here he is at his most practical, almost namby-pamby:
Fritters of Elder-flower
‘Take some elder-flowers and pound them in the mortar, mix them with cream cheese and grated Parmesan, fresh eggs, a pinch of cinnamon, a few drops of rose water. Work the lot into a paste and then form little round cakes or balls. Fry in butter, serve hot with sugar sprinkled on the top. Popular in the seventeenth century, and not so bad as it sounds.’
And here is a drink that he describes as ‘an unrivalled stimulant’, which we might as well call
Love Potion Number 9½
(Douglas calls it Hysterical Water – hmm.)
Vegetarians – look away.
‘Take seeds of wild parsnip, betony, and roots of lovage, of each two ounces; roots of single peony four ounces; of mistletoe of the oak three ounces; myrrh a quarter of an ounce. Beat all these together, and add to them a quarter of a pound of dried millipedes. Pour on these three quarts of mugwort water, and two quarts of brandy. Let them stand in a closed vessel eight days, and then still it in a cold still pasted up. You may draw ogg nine pints of water, and sweeten it to your taste. Mix all together, and bottle it up.’ And to think, people complain about the difficulty of finding the ingredients for Ottolenghi recipes.
Norman Douglas was no great cookery writer, but you’ve got to hand it to someone who writes an aphrodisiac cookbook at the age of 82 (though, considering his sexual history……er…..).
Words by Orlando Gough.