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She bathed with roses red and violets blue, and all the sweetest flowers that in the forest grew.
- Edmund Spenser ‘The Fairie Queen’,1590.
The mid-Victorian era is where many of the key themes of St Valentine’s day originate. The development of fine-quality eating chocolate by Lindt, Peter and Cadbury allowed confectioners to expand their repertoire hugely, while the practical help of the Royal Mail fuelled a massive increase in the sending of anonymous cards and love messages.
Tokens given on this day are traditionally small and precious. A heart-shaped chocolate box, made so popular by Richard Cadbury, containing a heart-shaped chocolate cake, just large enough to be shared perhaps, and designed to look like a box containing either chocolates or dipped strawberries would be the epitome of a St Valentine’s day celebratory cake.
Red lace and ribbons are commonly used across Europe to decorate gifts, and were featured by the chocolatier Richard Cadbury to decorate his heart-shaped box that he first marketed in 1868. The heart-shaped box became a great hit and is always associated with gifts of love.
At this time, chocolate was just becoming popular as an ingredient rather than just a sweetmeat with Isabella Beeton giving one of the first recipes for chocolate soufflés in her Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.
Another symbol often associated with the day in Europe is the key – given to unlock the heart on St Valentine’s day.
Across the UK, regional characters often appear in folklore associated with the day. For example, in Norfolk a character called Jack Valentine knocks on the rear door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children.
In Latin America it is the day of the secret friend; in China, the lovers festival.
A herb traditionally worn by women, dried as a nosegay, to encourage fertility. As such, it was a herb that would have been also associated with new beginnings, the spring and a time of new energy in relationships.
Basil, of course, is a soft herb that was only possible to grow in the warmest of months – indicating love. Its culinary use should not be limited to savory foods, as its floral nature is excellent when used in conjunction with creams and custards, especially with strawberries and white chocolate.
One of the pagan herbs of love and remembrance, indicating longevity and love eternal. Rosemary flowers in the early spring, and is one of the first herbs to do so, hence its association with Valentines Day.
A herb that is used as a relaxant and aphrodisiac. Its oils are acute and intense and used in therapies to awaken the spirit, to encourage focus in love. A strong flavour that is best incorporated into sponge or biscuit rather than creams and custards.
Honey (and bees).
The flavour of honey in traditional food and drinks, allied with the sting of bees in art is used to indicate sweet love and bitterness – the yin and yang of love.
Honey has an ancient use in European, Asian and African food cultures, being the only sweetener prior to the development of the technology that refined sugar from cane in the middle ages, and beet in the 19th Century. Honey pairs well with herbal scents and chocolate offering an opportunity to combine with other flavours suggested herein.
The almond the tree itself remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship. As the almond tree flowers in southern Europe in early February, and the trees‘ nuts, oils and the flowers being used for flavouring desserts and creams.
These heart-shaped fruits are the symbol of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Perhaps the fruit most used as a sign of indulgence and romance.
The St. Valentine is buried in the Basilica of Saint Mary in Rome, his statue bedecked with spring flowers and those of the almond tree in particular. Relics of the Saint also appear in Dublin.
It is clear that Valentine reached out to those who found love impossible as sanctioned by wider society as a whole. He certainly reached out to soldiers of Rome that were forbidden to marry due to their service to the state, and conducted secret ceremonies for them and their lovers. He was also thought to have reached out to sailors who would have also found love and marriage difficult due to their absence and time at sea.
St. Valentine’s Day traditions centre on foods that have a traditional connection to love or remembrance. The day is also associated with the advent of spring, symbolically being the time that plants start to grow.
Where does the tradition of sending romantic gifts on St Valentine’s day come from? Well, the early English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer developed the principle of romantic love, courtly love, and courting, exchanging gifts, confectionary in particular that were high value items. Sugared sweets and comfits were especially prized because sugar was so rare and expensive.