The beginning of the year doesn't have a great rep, food-wise. An abstemious winter wasteland in December's portly shadow. While food writers will enthuse about the zesty optimism of the blood orange and the mineral promise of dark leafy greens, the truth often tastes more like a limp stir-fry and half a pot of low-cal soup. So it's hardly surprising that when an excuse for a feast arrives on 14 February, we fall on it with greedy gusto.
What is surprising, however, is the food that we're meant to find romantic. Your steak and chips meal deals, your shellfish platters, your prim assiettes of not-quite-enough pudding. Valentine's Day menus, in a similar tradition to Come Dine With Me menus, often put more emphasis on the illusion of 'good taste' than on actually delivering it on your plate. Not to mention the traditional lacklustre traipse round Zone 1 looking for refuge after it becomes abundantly clear that you can't 'just rock up' at Clos Maggiore. Even the 40% of us (if a 2018 survey by MBNA credit cards is to be believed) who prefer to dine in are still buying, overwhelmingly, prime cuts of steak (39%). Somewhere along the way 'posh food' became synonymous with 'romantic food', and punters have been swallowing the myth ever since.
Oysters I understand, in theory. Traditionally expensive foods will always hold a certain amount of romantic sway (though less so if you're splitting the bill, like a good enlightened millennial) – and it's undeniable that the briny gulp in your gullet can seem deliciously rude. If you want it to. But despite all the hype around zinc, who actually feels sexy after oysters? Doesn't the faint threat of norovirus dampen the mood?
Likewise waxy chocolate fondues, rocket salads strewn with pomegranate, pallid out-of-season strawberries, and everything else you're likely to find in one of those '21 Top Aphrodisiac Foods To Get You In The Mood' slideshows by Dr Yahoo PhD. I'll spare you my ruminations on the after-effects of asparagus, but the point is this: truly romantic food – food that makes you misty-eyed, weak-kneed and warm from your belly to your heart and back again – is simply never what we're told it should be.
properly romantic food is a lovingly presented bacon sandwich
Ask around, as I've spent the past week doing, and it becomes clear that properly romantic food is the stuff of spontaneous picnics, not exorbitant set menus. It's the bacon sandwich, lovingly presented to soothe the hangover you hadn't admitted you had yet. It's somebody yelling, "Wait, the garnish!" and lavishing a fistful of coriander on top of your TV dinner. It's a bowl of noodles thrumming with garlic, safe in the knowledge that if you both eat them, you can still snog afterwards. And it's ducking out of the rain and into some backstreet bistro with wipe-clean tablecloths that you will refer to ever after as "that little place we love", even though you've never actually gone back.
Of course, food evolves as relationships do. Over time, individual soufflés give way to ice cream on the sofa, two spoons doing battle for the last chunk. Sexy lingerie is replaced by trussed-up chicken. Your heart melts instead at the sight of late-night leftovers, with a plate on top to keep them warm. At some point you will eat dinner in a bare room using two cardboard boxes pushed together as a 'table', and it will feel like the most exquisite meal you've ever had.
"On our first night living together eight years ago, my now-husband and I sat on the floor (no furniture) eating a huge pot (no plates) of spaghetti carbonara," says Kym, 30, who has been married to Fraser for a year. "It was so good we took the pot to bed. We now call it 'bed pasta'. Without even knowing it, I tell her she's echoed the carbonara in Nora Ephron's Heartburn; a scene immortalised on-screen by Meryl Streep and perverted in cookbooks by Nigella Lawson, who adds double cream to her version of "that chin-dripping, love-soaked primal feast."
Pasta seems to feature in many people's romantic repertoires, as does risotto. And it makes sense – not for any reason as simplistic as 'Italians are sexy', but because there's both a life-loving brio and a comfortable decadence tied up in a bowlful of good, salty carbs. Pasta invites you to unwind as your tagliatelle does, while the buttery ooze of a slowly stirred risotto is delayed gratification made edible. Plus, y'know, Italians are sexy.
Illustrations by Ben the Illustrator
"You know you're happy when you start slurping on red sauce together," says Laura Goodman, author of recent hit cookbook Carbs. "There's no pretence in a bowl of pasta. It's true and delicious and good. One of the earliest, most important trips my husband and I went on was to Piedmont where we got to know yolky agnolotti and tajarin and sage butter and each other. It really cut to the heart, that trip. Pasta with sage butter will always be the sexiest dish in the world to me."
A bellyful of starch and butter might not make for an invigorating date night, but then that's the thing about V-Day – it's in February. Maybe five months later we might woo each other with hunks of libidinous watermelon, but the scrag-end of winter demands a certain amount of stodge.
In my house, the real cupid of the store cupboard is an even humbler carbohydrate. One winter, in the cold, dark days of January, with an empty fridge and an emptier bank account, we found a forgotten sack of potatoes and made them our new year project. Every night for a week, we stayed in and ate spuds. We scrubbed and peeled, sliced and boiled. We roasted them to a crinkle, layered them in moussaka and mashed them into great, creamy hills pooled with garlic butter. Then we rolled ourselves to bed (to sleep) at 9pm. It was hardly the fridge scene from 9½ Weeks, but there was a perfect cosiness to The Big Potato Project of 2015 that I've never felt in a candlelit brasserie, picking at a trio of scallops. Which isn't to say that fine dining can't be love language too. But more often than not it's a special significance or an in-joke that really lends the flavour.
"I'm not absolutely sure how it started but 16 November is Lobster Day. It's a national holiday on which my husband and I celebrate our fanciness and go out for a lobster dinner," says writer Daisy Buchanan, whose fondness for the swellegant crustacean extends to lobster cushions, lobster jewellery and a lobster handbag. She has more luck with them than Annie Hall did."My husband bought me rioja and unpasteurised cheese after the birth of our babies," says Sally Bunkham. "Very thoughtful and romantic when everyone else was buying baby grows." So thoughtful she founded a hamper business, Mum's Back, inspired by his post-partum offerings.
Cheesecake brought us together and the rest, as they say, is history
Most relationships are measured out in moments of shared gluttony, but some are actually founded on them. Kate, 63, and Rob, 64, got engaged over a spaghetti bolognese, "long before the days of fancy proposals". Nearly four decades later, Wednesday night is still their spag bol night.
"Cheesecake brought us together," says Jack, who met Ashley in 2011 when she tweeted a picture of one she had made. "As a thin pretence for flirting online we 'founded' Cheesecake Club to compare efforts, for which I was responsible for writing a 'manifesto'. Continuing the theme, our first date was at a cake show at the Excel after which we got just the right kind of drunk… and the rest, as they say, is history. We had the manifesto saved as a souvenir."
Though it's true the capital is stuffed with seductive dishes (and food to gaze at them over), sometimes a change of scenery can be all it takes to make average grub blissfully romantic. "Fish and chips and champagne on a windy beach in Margate. We ate it the first time we went away together, and now it's a tradition every year," says Susannah Otter, an editor at Quadrille, who celebrated her engagement to Alex with another feast from seafront institution Peter's Fish Factory. "We've eaten in many a fancy restaurant, but this is the meal that sticks most vividly."
Other people's swoony food memories range from paella on Spanish marinas to barbecued greens on a Hebridean beach, to "the meatballs and chips we get in Ikea." Of course, getting through an Ikea trip with your relationship still intact is enough to make anything taste good, but still. Context.
Perhaps most heartwarming of all, when you ask people for their most 'romantic' food stories, you don't just get tales of spaghetti and seduction – lots of people want to talk about family recipes instead, or food shared with friends. "Corned beef hash while camping with my grandparents."; "40 years ago a friend and I found an empty upstairs Chinese restaurant in a dying downtown area. We were the only customers."; "My best friend's Dad spent weeks perfecting homemade sausage 'McMuffins' and turned up to make them for her on the morning of her wedding."
All proof that if the food of love is more than just oysters and champagne, then romance is more than just hearts and flowers. Sometimes it's a lovingly prepared meal for one. Sometimes it's a slightly squashed pastel de nata, presented with ceremony from a carry-on suitcase. And sometimes it's simply the promise that somebody else will scrub the roasting tin afterwards.