Despite the occasionally curmudgeonly tone of this column, you’ll have to trust me that, at heart, I’m a romantic. I’ve been with my better half, Mrs N (sorry, I can’t use the word ‘partner’, it makes me think of strategic business alliances, not lovers) for 24 years, and that feat has not been achieved by letting things slide. Believe me, at times, I’ve tried.
No. Like a sourdough starter, a relationship needs daily attention and regular topping-up. It is a 365-day-a-year project, which is why I’m ambivalent about Valentine’s Day, in all its pink satin, commercialised inanity. Relationships are not built on one-off gestures. Love cannot be expressed in an expensive box of chocolates.
But what sensible foodie would turn those handmade truffles down? You may dislike Valentine’s Day on principle, but – given that food is central to the way many couples foster intimacy – it is, if nothing else, a great excuse for a good feed. And that’s a concept that we can all get behind, right? With that in mind, here’s my essential Valentine’s guidance.
The food of love… In her essay Love in a Dish, the legendary American food writer, MFK Fisher, makes a strenuous case for the idea that eating together, undistracted by TV, iPhones, etc., is the prelude to love. ‘Happiness at table,’ she insists, ‘leads to happiness in bed.’ But must we be so strict? Watching a film or box-set while you eat, sharing an hour of laughter or drama, is a great way to de-stress on a Sunday. That bonding can be just as important as what is on your plate or in your glass. Don’t stint on the alcohol, though. It helps. A lot.
Healthy appetite… On Valentine’s Day particularly, beware your new squeeze if he/ she does not enjoy food. Eating with gusto, displaying a healthy, guilt-free appetite for the sensual, self-indulgent pleasures of food is a good indicator that someone will be just as enthusiastic in – nudge, nudge – other areas. Do you think clean eaters who exist on coconut water, kale and quinoa are having great sex? Of course not. They’re too tired to even think about it.
Cancel the restaurant… You know who eats out on Valentine’sDay? Amateurs. Clued-up foodies know that the last place you want to be on 14th February is in a restaurant, eating from a dreary, exorbitantly expensive set menu, cooked by an over-stretched kitchen brigade and served in a dining room which has been rearranged to pack tables-for-two into every nook and cranny. You’ll be so close to the next table that a) you will feel a breeze if they blow each other a kiss or b) you will hear every word of their marital tiff. Ironically, a lot of couples have blazing rows in restaurants on Valentine’s Day. Which is a vibe-killer. If you must eat out, stick to a familiar venue, where you feel comfortable, the light is flattering and no-one will try and sell you a Viagra cocktail or a sharing plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries. This is not 1978.
Step up to the hot-plate… Invariably, in any couple, one partner cooks more than the other. Valentine’s Day is payback time. Get out your apron, rattle those pans and take the strain off ‘the cook’. Or, at least, order a bloody good takeaway. In itself, cooking is a nurturing, giving demonstration of love, but the simple act of putting yourself out is romantic, too. Don’t forget the washing-up.
A serious heart to heart… Should you find yourself seeking menu inspiration in Heart on a Plate: Heart-Shaped Food For the Ones You Love (Square Peg, £9.99), stop right there. Presenting food in heart- shapes, and I’ve seen it all, from cheese and shortbread to breaded veal cutlets, is infantile. See also; gold leaf, carving vegetables into roses, any food where couples spoon-feed each other.
Keep it light… Assuming that you want your Valentine’s meal to be followed by – how can I put this delicately? – some adult physical activity, then think: sushi, grilled fish, charcuterie, small plates of Iberian or zingy East Asian food. Serve huge portions of pâté, shepherd’s pie and sticky toffee pudding, and you’ll end the meal unbuttoning your trousers… but for all the wrong reasons.
Rude food… From phallic asparagus to the climactic ritual of opening a bottle of champagne, there are innumerable foods that are, it is claimed, erotically-charged aphrodisiacs. These often dictate Valentine’s menus despite it all, clearly, being nonsense. For instance, if glossy, slippery fried foods were such a turn-on every KFC in the country would look like a scene from 9½ Weeks. They don’t. I’ve checked. As for the ‘scientific evidence’ that zinc-packed oysters or chocolate (which contains the so-called ‘love drug’, phenylethylamine), boost libido: hooey. You would have to eat tonnes of those foods before they had any effect. Casanova ate 50 oysters each day. Not six one night in February.
Naughty but not nice… Gift tip: foodies don’t love edible knickers or chocolate body paint. It would need to be at least 90% cocoa solids. Do they sell anything like that in Ann Summers? I’m asking for a friend.
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