Food of Love

If Cleopatra was having a dinner party, what dessert would she serve?

I recently had my wisdom teeth out. Like Titus Andronicus, the whole thing was a gory disaster! The surgeon couldn’t get down to the teeth and had to take out a lot more bone than planned to reach them. As a result I am banned from eating solid foods for six weeks, as a whole hearted chew is likely to cause a mandible fracture. We all know that the minute something is forbidden it becomes absolutely irresistible! As I eat yoghurts, purees, and soups, all I can think of is the beautiful blend of textures in an un-mashed dish! When the abstemious and ascetic Angelo in Measure for Measure meets the untouchable and equally abstinent Isabella, he is suddenly filled with uncontrollable desire.
Why does my blood thus muster to my heart,
Making both it unable for itself, 
And dispossessing all my other parts 
Of necessary fitness? (II.V)
Angelo can think of nothing else. In fact he can barely function. To be honest, he is probably kidding himself when he claims that the blood is mustering in his heart! Denied the crunch, chomp, chew and nibble of solid food, my mind is consumed by food fantasies, which is “dispossessing all my other parts / Of necessary fitness”.

Food in Shakespeare is an important vehicle for expression. Afterall, food is the stuff of life. One of the chief causes of civil unrest in Coriolanus is access to food, and in As You Like It the need for food is what draws the characters in the forest together. But food in Shakespeare is more than staying alive. In Coriolanus consumption and abstinence are used to communicate weakness and manliness respectively. In Hamlet the description of Gertrude’s wedding feast indicates the undue haste of her second marriage. Like a good bubble and squeak (something I used to think was ‘foul and unnatural’ but I am now converted) the “funeral bak'd meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (I.II). In Much Ado About Nothing foodstuff is used to describe the natures and personalities of the people. When Claudius is jealous he is “civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion” (II.I), and in his turn, when Claudius believes Hero has deceived him, he rages at her father “Give not this rotten orange to your friend; / She's but the sign and semblance of her honour” (IV.I). Claudius claims that, like an orange that can appear ripe and appealing on the outside while it is rotten inside, Hero only appears virtuous, and inside she is corrupt. Shakespeare gives this image of fruit to Claudius because Hero is portrayed as a desirable possession to be consumed.

It is common in early modern drama and poetry to use images of food consumption to talk about love and desire. Like Hero, the sensual and enticing Cleopatra is often described in terms of food. Enobarbus, predicting that Antony will return to her, sighs, “He will to his Egyptian dish again” (II.VI). Cleopatra describes her past self, in Caesar’s day, as “a morsel for a monarch” (I.V). As he lashes out, Antony too claims that when he found her she was like waste food:
…a morsel cold upon 
Dead Caesar's trencher; nay, you were a fragment 
Of Gneius Pompey's (III.XIII)

However, unlike Hero, Cleopatra is not simply a delicious piece of food to be consumed – she is food with a strange, magical power. Cleopatra not only “makes hungry / Where most she satisfies” (II.II), she also becomes greater and more magnificent as she is consumed. Paradoxically, instead of being diminished by being fed upon, this is a food that proliferates and expands. Since her days as a “morsel for a monarch”, Cleopatra has transformed into the “dish” described by Enobarbus in his famous barge speech.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold; 
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that 
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver, 
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made 
The water which they beat to follow faster, 
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person, 
It beggar'd all description (II.II)
Enobarbus claims that Cleopatra can never stale or satiate. Imagery of food characterises the lifestyle of lavish excess surrounding Cleopatra and Antony. In one scene a Roman friend asks Enobarbus (who has been with Antony) about the rumours of excess at the Egptian court: “Eight wild-boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there; is this true?” Enobarbus replies that it is indeed true, but compared to their other meals, that was nothing.

Personally, I don’t have a breakfast story that would quite outshine Enobarbus’ but I do have one that I think would have been right up Cleopatra's street! When I was younger I wasn’t much of a cook, but if my parents were having a dinner party they would allow me to prepare my signature dessert: a rich, chocolatey affair that would upset any abstemious Roman. In truth, this dessert was a basic chocolate pot recipe which I had adapted to make it much sweeter and probably less palatable to my parents’ adult guests! I switched half the dark chocolate for milk chocolate, and traded the rum for amaretto liquor (and probably added more than the recipe indicated); the result was alchemy! Thinking I was utterly crafty, I would make sure I made much too much of this rich, sweet treat was made so that my sister and I could sneak downstairs very early in the morning and devour the leftovers for breakfast. The recipe is decadent in the extreme, and my remembered morning trysts with these sumptuous treats have forever given them a flavour of the forbidden.

Here is my secret chocolate dessert, suitable for the decadent and sensual court of Cleopatra:
100g Dark Chocolate
100g Milk Chocolate
½ pint double cream
2 large egg yolks
25g butter
3 tbs amaretto liquor

Heat the cream in a pan but don't let it boil. Stir in the chocolate until melted. Next stir in the other ingriedients until you have a silky mixture. Pour into espresso cups or ramekins to cool in the fridge.*

I can’t remember which recipe we originally adapted, but judging by our collection of cookery books it may have been one of Nigella’s. Here is a link to Nigella’s Chestnut Chocolate Pot Recipe which is even more delicious than the illicit amaretto chocolate pots.
*For a more detailed method, follow Nigella’s instructions. 

Of course, Cleopatra would probably have these simple delights topped with gold leaf, or served on the backs of tame crocodiles in pearl-encrusted shot glasses, but they’re pretty decadent as they are. The best part about these superbly desirable and suitably Shakespearean indulgences is that none of them will incur a mandible fracture!


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