1. Life & Culture

For Valentine's Day: Can pomegranates, oysters and chocolate from Tampa Bay restaurants boost your sex life?

A Pomegranate Daisy cocktail served at Mise en Place in Tampa. The cocktail has pressed pomegranate grenadine, fresh lime juice, Carpano Bianco vermouth, Stolichnaya vodka and dry sparkling wine.
A Pomegranate Daisy cocktail served at Mise en Place in Tampa. The cocktail has pressed pomegranate grenadine, fresh lime juice, Carpano Bianco vermouth, Stolichnaya vodka and dry sparkling wine.
Published Feb. 14, 2017

Like so much of our language, we have the Greeks to thank for the term "aphrodisiac." Ancient Greeks celebrated Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with festivals called "aphrodisia."

Somehow after that, food and drink thought to stimulate desire became known as "aphrodisiacs."

Oysters are perhaps the best known, though the list is long. Honey, figs, chili peppers, avocados, arugula, pine nuts, artichokes, pumpkin seeds and on and on. It seems countless foods contain certain vitamins or nutrients that are believed to stimulate production of estrogen or testosterone, increase blood flow or spike dopamine, a chemical in the brain that induces feelings of pleasure.

Alcohol, as well, is often associated with lowering inhibitions and promoting intimacy. Shakespeare, however, was not so sure. He pointed out in Macbeth: "It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance."

Regardless of the medical proof or mythological lore, certain foods are simply beautiful, interesting and delicious. So this February issue of Bay salutes three supposed aphrodisiacs: oysters, chocolate and pomegranates.

This story appeared in Bay magazine, which is published by the Tampa Bay Times eight times a year. To read the full edition, go to the Bay Magazine online flip book.

Pomegranates are celebrated for their beauty and crownlike stem in art dating to 800 B.C.

There are numerous statues of Artemis, the goddess of fertility, depicted with multiple pomegranates for breasts. The red-seeded fruit is painted on the walls of the House of the Orchard in Pompeii.

Fast forward 3,000 years to the modern, mainstream purveyor of art and beauty, Pinterest, and pomegranates are celebrated on phone cases, in garnet and gold earrings and hundreds of other ways.

There seems to be some validity to the fruit's aphrodisiac status. The International Journal of Impotence Research published findings last year that a daily dose of pomegranate juice helped men with mild to moderate erectile dysfunction improve their condition.

The pomegranate is the reason winter comes each year, according to Greek mythology. When Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld, if she ate anything there, she would have to stay forever. Her father Zeus negotiated her release, but just before she left she ate six pomegranate seeds. So it was deemed she would have to return to the underworld for six months every year. During this time, her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, is broken hearted and living plants and trees die.

The pomegranate is as versatile as it is beautiful. The seeds are scattered over salads, cooked into sauces, chopped in smoothies and concocted into cocktails.

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Mise en Place serves a seared duck breast with a huckleberry pomegranate port gastrique as well as a fresh pomegranate cocktail. And Hades has no claim on you no matter how much you enjoy.

Just as every pearl is unique, so is every oyster. They are personalized by the waters in which they live, the food they eat and even the flow of the tide.

"You're getting a little bit of saltwater from Wellfleet, Mass.," Kenny Tufo, executive chef at Sea Salt, said as a guest tasted a Wellfleet oyster. It's one of the dozen or so varieties the restaurant has on hand at any given time.

There are more than 150 different kinds of oysters sold in the United States, and the mix is always changing at Sea Salt. The Wellfleet, for example, falls within the species known as Eastern or Atlantic oysters, which are salty and briny, but still a little sweet. Pacific oysters, found along the West Coast of the United States, have hints of watermelon and cucumber, Tufo said, because of the types of seaweed in the water there.

Sea Salt is starting an "oyster club" to encourage patrons to sample different varieties. Guests are given a booklet called a "passport" with 32 pages. When they try 32 different oysters, jotting opinions of them on each page, they receive a $50 gift card to the restaurant.

"I think we carry a lot of things you're not going to find anywhere else," Tufo said. He and Sea Salt's other oyster sommelier are on hand to educate diners about the intricacies of oysters. They start with teaching how to shuck an oyster.

"Everything you are doing is tactile," Tufo said, as he gingerly opened the shell, adding that's another reason he thinks they deserve their notoriety as aphrodisiacs.

There is some science backing the seafood's sexual reputation. Oysters are high in zinc, which is found to aid in the development of healthy sperm, according to a recent study in the Reproductive BioMedicine journal.

Whether one consumes male or female oysters isn't a factor. They are hermaphrodites.

Montezuma, emperor of the Aztecs in the 1400s, is said to have consumed cocoa beans before romantic trysts because they were believed to increase his stamina.

In the 1600s, various religious leaders questioned if cocoa inspired lustful passion, and some sought to ban it. So it's understandable why chocolate is rumored to be an aphrodisiac.

A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine several years ago, however, found consumption of chocolate in test groups of women didn't stimulate increased sexual desire.

But there's no excuse needed to enjoy chocolate. Especially chocolates from William Dean, the artisan candy maker in Belleair Bluffs.

For the past decade, his hand-painted chocolates have turned heads and sparked taste buds. Owner Bill Brown left his corporate job at Ceridian, the employee benefits company, to make chocolates. Soon Dean & DeLuca started carrying his creations. Whoopi Goldberg shared them with the women of The View and declared them her favorite chocolate in 2008. Four years later William Dean's colorful chocolates scored a cameo in the blockbuster Hunger Games movie. They were part of the spectacular spread of food on the train Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch took to the Capitol.

Brown, who named his business after his father, (William) and grandfather, (Dean) is always changing designs and flavors, the same as any artist.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


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