Love is in the fare
If you are feeling sheepish about expressing yourself to your loved one this Valentine's Day, consider this - it all started with a flock. These days it can end with your wallet feeling shorn.
Lupercalia, on the Roman equivalent of February 15, honoured Lupercus, the god of shepherds. As the Chriastian church grew stronger in Rome it took over the festival. By 496AD, Lupercalia was outlawed when Pope Gelasius I made February 14 a Christian holiday, to commemorate Saint Valentine, a priest who became known as the patron saint of love.
Other twists appeared on the path to true love as courtship has taken on many expressions across the globe, many of them related to food.
Wool was important to the Dai people in southern China, where courtship rituals revolved around the spinning of yarn and the wearing of a red blanket. Unmarried males in red quilts and playing musical instruments approach girls gathered around a bonfire and spinning yarn on wheels. If a man spots a girl he likes he serenades her and if he receives a positive response invites the girl to sit with him under the quilt and swap sweet nothings.
From yakking to yaks - these are highly valued animals in Tibet. To this day, prior to marriage, the suitor is required to shower his beloved's family with gifts that include yak butter and tea.
One romantic term obviously related to food is honeymoon. In ancient France, the tradition was to ply newlyweds with plenty of mead (a beer brewed from honey) for a month, the beverage symbolising sweetness and fertility.
On to Wales, noted not only for sheep but for lovespoons. In the 17th century lovespoons were gifts to express affection, the details of the utensil symbolising the feelings of the carver. Handmade from a single piece of wood, the suitor would carve elaborate designs on the handle, such as hearts, locks (for faithfulness and security) and vines (meaning growth).
In 19th century Finland affection was expressed with a sharper implement: the puuuko knife would be presented to the woman (wearing a girdle with an empty sheath attached); the suitor would place the blade in her sheath. If the recipient was interested in the knife-giving suitor, she would keep the gift.
That was a pretty direct message - not all cultures are so blunt. Around the same time, certain Native American men used courting flutes to woo the objects of their affection. The men allegedly had difficulty in expressing their feelings directly so the courting flute became another way to convey them. If she was charmed by the music, the woman would meet the man; otherwise, she would stay at home and act as though she had not heard the music at all, sparing the poor man from direct rejection.
In modern times the wooing of a loved one on Valentine's Day almost entirely revolves around ritual dining. February 14 is one of the busiest (and thus lucrative) days in the industry's calendar. At the JW Marriott hotel, for example, executive pastry chef Jason Licker claims after Christmas, Valentine's Day is the busiest day for the hotel with more than 750 people visiting the food and beverage venues.
Ingredients said to have aphrodisiac properties are all over the menus, from oysters as starters to chocolate desserts. While countless restaurants offer pink menus that include roses for the ladies, others provide less predictable but more intimate experiences.
One genre that is likely to jazz up the set meal is molecular gastronomy, made famous by Spanish chef Ferran Adria. Everything from gels, foams and starches to liquid nitrogen are employed to transform familiar food into something more novel or imaginative.
Chef Mike Boyle, who presides over Ava Restaurant Slash Bar, uses these techniques. One of his signature moves is dipping red roses in liquid nitrogen, then incorporating the crushed petals into desserts. His eight-course Valentine's menu includes foie gras with rice cracker and jasmine tea gel, and poached Boston lobster with lavender and vanilla risotto.
To heighten the thrill factor, Boyle likes to add eccentric ingredients to dishes, such as (allegedly) natural Viagra alternatives from the Caribbean. In the desserts, besides a coconut-rose panna cotta with basil caviar and shattered rose petals, there is a fig tart with Mama Juana, the latter being 'what the Dominican Republic considers a natural libido enhancer for men and women,' says chef Boyle. 'It's a rum-based drink steeped with herbs such as ginseng and guarana and a lot of spices mixed in that are categorised as aphrodisiacs,' he explains. Try such preparations for HK$1,888 for two. Instead of roses, women will receive a scarf from Frey Wille.
If you want something more traditional in the hope that Valentine's Day will lead to wedding bells, consider a venue that recalls old-world romance.
The Verandah, a gorgeous venue in Repulse Bay built before the second world war, has several rare qualities. It is a beacon of colonial charm in a city notorious for bulldozing historical sites. On display are reminders of earlier guests such as Ernest Hemingway when The Verandah was a hotel. It also has a wood-burning fireplace in the Reading Room, a perfect spot for an after-dinner snuggle.
The romantic location is a favourite for weddings. Executive chef Franck Studeny says two-year advance bookings are the norm. He has lost count of how many times guests have asked to him to help stage proposals prior to dinner, especially on Valentine's Day.
This year, a six-course continental feast at HK$1,588 per couple, starts with langoustine tartare, then roasted French quail, followed by a veloute (soup) of Brittany oysters. Main course options include steamed Dover sole fillet, Boston lobster medallions or veal tenderloin with mushrooms and truffle risotto, plus a dessert platter to close. Booking for the dinner or a spot in the Reading Room is required.
Another place for a taste of history and old-fashioned romance is The Peak Lookout. This 19th century site resembles an English cottage, with arched windows, a lush garden and al fresco dining area; no wonder couples find it hard to resist. Paths surrounding The Peak are perfect for a romantic post-prandial stroll. On Valentine's Day, the four-course menu at HK$838 per person includes house-cured gravlax or double chicken consomme with lobster and salmon ravioli to start; main course options of grilled veal rack, mustard-crusted beef medallions, or baked cod fillet with a herb and parmesan crust.
Some value deals can be found in a la carte or non-Valentine specials. Shore in Sheung Wan is hosting a steak comparison special throughout February and March, presenting plates such as dry-aged versus wet-aged beef. From February 13 to 26, the theme is grass- versus grain-fed beef. Which steak is more tender, fuller in flavour? Figure it out with your other half when both steaks are presented (in 9oz portions), part of a three-course dinner at HK$598 a head. A blazing row over food preferences is the last thing you need on the most romantic night of the year.
Many couples will be enjoying their meal with a bottle of wine on Valentine's Day, but only a handful might make their own, bespoke blend for a sip that's much more personal. On February 13, from 7pm to 9pm, couples can join in the blending session at The Flying Winemaker, a recently opened cellar and bar in Central that also hosts wine workshops in its upstairs lab. An expert will demonstrate the last stage in the winemaking process: mixing varietals to create the perfect blend. Couples can then try their hand at the method and bottle the results to take home as a souvenir.
Founder Eddie McDougall will guide the session, which includes oysters and Louis Roederer bubbly. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot from McDougall's own winery in Australia will be used to produce a classic Bordeaux-style wine to suit each couple's individual tastes. The night is HK$1,900 for two. Call 2522 2181 for more information.
Those looking for something more intimate could visit a private kitchen where they can bring their own favourite tipple. Le Marron in Causeway Bay is a French provincial-style venue with lush fabrics and boudoir-like decor. The five-course special includes roasted gammon ham, lamb chops, seared sea bass or Angus short-rib, all served with heart-shaped fondant potatoes. The dinner costs HK$620 per person.
Heart-shaped chocolate cookies
A home-made gift delivers a personal touch. Try this recipe by JW Marriott's executive pastry chef Jason Licker, an expert at cocoa-based desserts and alumnus of Jean Georges Vongerichten and Valrhona Chocolate School. 'The almond meal gives these cookies an extra richness,' he says. Licker insists you use the best-quality cocoa from producers such as Valrhona. Sandwich cookies with a filling such as Nutella, whipped cream or ganache.
Makes 16-20 cookies
220 grams almond flour (finely ground almonds)
450 grams butter
100 grams cocoa powder
190 grams bread flour
190 grams cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
233 grams confectioner's sugar
20ml orange juice
Nutella (or your own favourite)
Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius. Line baking trays with parchment paper, set aside. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and blend or mix manually until a dough results; Let dough rest for about an hour. Dust a little flour onto a flat surface; roll out to about 1.5cm thickness. Use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to stamp out shortbread pieces. Lay them on the baking tray and put in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes (or until the edges are slightly cracked on the surface). Put onto wire rack to cool. Spread one side with filling then sandwich with another piece. Before serving, lightly dust with icing sugar.
More than just desserts
Instead of the usual strawberry cake or chocolate mousse, try some of these intriguing dessert variations.
If your sweetheart is a chocoholic, check out Dolce 88's selection. Part of the JW Marriott's lobby has been transformed into a deli, cake shop and chocolate emporium. Cake flavours include chocolate bavarois with a red-wine-poached pear centre, and smoked vanilla mousse with a balsamic core. There are romantic specials, too, including a heart-shaped raspberry mousse and jelly with a chocolate centre with crushed praline wafers.
Coco at The Mira has dreamed up some quirky confections, available until Tuesday, such as 'kissable bonbons' - rose chocolate rouge lipsticks - as well as raspberry-accented tiramisu inside a 'red apple' (below left).
More health-conscious couples can visit Gioia by Chi, a wedding cake shop and patisserie in Kowloon City, which specialises in low-sugar or sugar-free creations (using alternatives such as Xylitol). Led by pastry chef Terry Chung, who has worked for the Four Seasons hotel group, delicacies include the pretty-in-pink Damascus rose yogurt cake (a lighter rendition of cheesecake with a floral accent) with dramatic white chocolate garnishes, or an Earl Grey chocolate cake prepared with sugar-free chocolate (below right).