Museum stories
Baked beans to ambergris: the top 5 weird and wonderful aphrodisiacs

When we think of aphrodisiacs we tend to think of luxury foods – lobsters and champagne, oysters and strawberries. But these delicious foods are probably the least interesting aphrodisiacs I have come across.

Though the use of aphrodisiacs goes back millennia, historically they were seen first and foremost as a cure of infertility – less about titillation and more about the task at hand. In the early modern period, lust and fertility were seen as inextricably linked, with pleasure integral to conception, making aphrodisiacs both functional and recreational. Aphrodisiacs were more than just sexual curiosities, they were a crucial element in the struggle for fertility.

It is a bonus that food floods the brain with endorphins causing people to feel more relaxed, happy, and perhaps more sexy. If you’ve ever factored a date’s restaurant choice or cooking skills into your decision to go to bed with them then you’ve experienced the aphrodisiac qualities of food. Cooking and eating are sensual activities – they stimulate smell, sight, taste, touch and sound. So here’s my top 5 historical aphrodisiacs, although you might not always want a second helping…

1. Beans

Early modern medical discourse was dominated by the ancient concept that the body was made up of four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm) existing in a delicate balance. The differing levels of these humours within a person created their individual constitution. Aphrodisiacs that warmed the body added fuel to the fire of sexual desire and counteracted frigidity, which was recognised as a common cause of infertility – the barren woman was cold.

But equally, too much heat could destroy your seed. One group of foods that you might be prescribed if you were overly hot was ‘windy meats’ aka beans and peas. Windy meats were prescribed for men in particular, who were considered to have a hot constitution. Windy meats were recommended as they thought an erection was caused by pressure and wind inflating the penis, hence flatulent foods. But personally I don’t see how farting in bed could be seen as erotic…

A heap of beans is shown in this 1592 print by Jacob Hoefnagel.

2. Vanilla

Vanilla is an inherently romantic plant – its small blossoms open in the morning and are exclusively pollinated by hummingbirds and bees. The Spanish Conquistadors noted the pod’s resemblance to female genitalia, and gave the plant the name vanilla, which is derived from the Latin for sheath. Europeans soon prized vanilla as an aphrodisiac, with wild stories circulating that vanilla could transform the ordinary man into an astonishing lover. Elizabeth I is said to have been especially fond of vanilla pudding.

Studies of vanilla beans and pods, drawn by Nicolas Robert (1625–1684).

3. Genitalia

A very influential medical theory during the Renaissance was that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God mercifully gave each plant a visible sign, usually in resemblance to a part of the human body it could be used to treat. Walnuts for the brain, kidney beans for the kidneys, and so forth. Therefore it made sense that plants and herbs that resembled genitalia would be aphrodisiacs – you have the asparagus and carrot to represent man vs. the oyster and strawberry for a lady.

Failing that, you could bypass flora and go straight for the fauna. With animal genitalia believed to be imbued with a primal sexual vitality, they made for excellent aphrodisiacs. However, if stag’s penis is not to your taste, the British Museum’s collection contains many votive and amulet penises which embody the same principle of sexual vigour and prowess.

A bronze phallus amulet from around 1700, and a 19th-century gold phallus pendant.

4. Chocolate

Chocolate was first regarded as an aphrodisiac by the Aztecs who thought it invigorated men and made women less inhibited. Their emperor Moctezuma reputedly drank it 50 times a day from a golden goblet, and is quoted referring to chocolate as: ‘The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.’

Chocolate was also very popular in 18th-century Europe, where it was so esteemed for its amorous properties that at one point monks were forbidden to drink it. In A History of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate, James Wadsworth wrote: ‘Twill make Old Women Young and Fresh; Create New Motions of the Flesh, and Cause them to long for you know what, If they but taste of chocolate.’

The notorious 18th-century Italian author Casanova also mentions chocolate in his memoirs, frequently discussing his habit of consuming cups of chocolate in order to sustain his lustful exploits. One particular recipe associated with Casanova is a chocolate cream infused with ambergris and vanilla, two of my other top 5, and a rather pleasant sounding concoction.

Portrait of Giacomo Casanova etched by J Berka in the 19th century.

5. Ambergris

Ambergris comes from the stomach of a sperm whale, which is why it’s often lovingly referred to as ‘whale vomit’. I like to think of it more as an oceanic truffle. Made from partially digested squid beaks, this mass builds up in the whale’s stomach, before being expelled, one way or another, and spending months, maybe years, at sea, maturing into one of the most expensive ingredients on the planet.

But why is this an aphrodisiac, I hear you cry? Well, rare and unusual things are instilled with a sort of mythical power, and ambergris is certainly a weird and wonderful object. It appears as an ingredient in numerous medical texts (Bonet 1686, Dufour 1685 and Stubbe 1662, to name just a few). Not much to look at, it has a powerful musky aroma and works as a fixative, making it a key ingredient in historical perfumes. It also makes for an interesting garnish, with Casanova mixing it into his chocolate cream, Elizabeth I wearing it around her neck in a pomander, and Charles I even grating it onto his eggs at breakfast!

Sample of ambergris acquired from Oman in 1985.

For more examples of historical aphrodisiacs, and a delicious recipe from the Islamic world, watch the first episode of our Pleasant vices series:

 

With thanks to Dr Jennifer Evans, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Hertfordshire, whose book Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England was a key factual source for this post.

Tasha Marks is a food historian, artist and founder of AVM Curiosities. Join Tasha and other guests from our Pleasant vices series at a special panel discussion on Friday 25 May to discover more delectable treats inspired by history and the Museum’s collection.