Giacomo Casanova (1725 -1798) priest, soldier, playwright, spy, composer, may have invented the lottery and escaped from the highest security prison in Europe, but he was most renowned for the sensuous swath of abandonment that he carved through 18th century Europe. Born in Venice to a legendary actress, unusually tall with olive skin and masses of dark curly hair, Casanova cavorted with farmers' daughters, courtesans, slaves, singers, sisters, married aristocrats and nuns. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that he befriended Mozart in Prague while the composer was working on Don Giovanni. (It has been suggested that Casanova contributed to the libretto.)
Throughout, he made time for meals. Casanova's memoir, L'Histoire de ma Vie, an 1800 page picturesque romp, is threaded through with pauses in which the hero stops to eat and occasionally bed the chef. Whether he was was nibbling oysters from his mistress's mouth; supping on sausage on arduous, cross country journeys; or reciting odes about pasta at the Macaroni Society, for Casanova, dining was integral not only to seduction but also to the practice of living. His palate veered towards the exotic and heady – truffles and game, spicy Neapolitan macaroni (a pâté à choux dumpling that resembles gnocchi), and ripe cheese, "the perfect state," he writes in l'Histoire, "of which is attained when the tiny animculae formed from its very essence begins to show signs of life."
Below are a few glimpses into Casanova’s appetites.
He was a son of 18th century Venice, a city where, as a local saying went, "Alla mattina una masseta, al dopa dinar una bassetta, alia sera una donetta." (A little mass in the morning, a game of cards after dinner, and a little woman in the evening.) It was where everyone in Europe flocked to revel. For the six months that was Venice's carnival, people wore masks, and thus disguised respectable married people, curious singles, and members of clergy alike flirted and indulged in assignations. Into this international port city also poured culinary temptations – fine Spanish wines, spices from the East, and great French chefs. Nevertheless, Casanova preserved his Venetian taste for home grown specialities like steaming bowls of polenta. He adored baccala mantecato, the local creamy, piquant spread made from salted stockfish. In his mother's womb, he inherited her craving for crabs and langoustines, and it was Adriatic seafood that remained one of his purest loves – crustaceans, bivalves, and fish culled from the lagoon, versions which one can still see fresh and sparkling in the Venetian marketplace today.
He got around. In Constantinople, Casanova supped on fried fish while spying on the members of his host's harem as they skinny-dipped by moonlight. He swapped oysters in St Petersburg with Catherine the Great, and attended her strictly no-alcohol balls. While he mourned the English tendency to overcook their meat, the lure of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding once stopped him from drowning himself in the Thames. Not all of his adventures were glamorous. Casanova also ate gnocchi in solitary confinement in a windowless cell in the depths of La Plombia, the highest security prison in Europe located in the dungeons of the Venetian Doge, and so named because the lead tiles of the palace's roof resulted in excruciatingly hot temperatures for the prisoners contained below.
How did he get the energy? If his memoir is to believed, Casanova's day might involve a hunting with a smattering of political espionage in the morning; writing a philosophical treatise and dallying with two sisters after lunch, and only after supper with royalty and a visit to the theatre would it be capped off with an highly acrobatic, multi-act night with one or more lovers. Hence, Casanova's diet was as assiduous as that of an athlete before a match. As an Enlightenment man, Casanova believed in the scientific properties of certain foods. Chocolate was an obvious aphrodisiac, which he drank unsweetened on a regular basis. Other foods that he believed maintained his general bedroom zest were almonds, egg whites and vinegar.
On a date, he spared no expense. When he was 24, the recently defrocked priest Casanova became smitten by the nun who was his then-girlfriend's lover and also the mistress to the French ambassador to Venice. (Take time to digest that if you will.) For one rendezvous, he rented an apartment in Venice – with silk hangings, chandeliers, and French chef on its premises – that was far above his means. The night before he was to meet the lady, he had a run-through to make sure he had the details correct. Alone, he had all the candles lit, ordered and sampled a full dinner for two of white truffles, game, fish, and fine wine. It was good, but not perfect; he asked the chef the next night to supply anchovies, hardboiled eggs, and vinegar with which to make a salad.
The Venice rehearsal must have paid off, because of his first night with the nun, he writes, “I varied our pleasures in a thousand different ways, and I astonished her by making her feel that she was susceptible of greater enjoyment than she had any idea of.”
Casanova relished many things that began with an O. In Paris he became a fan of the cordial orgeat, a concoction of almonds, orange flower water, and brandy. He loved olla podrida, a rich Spanish bean stew reminiscent of French cassoulet and Spanish favada. Flavoured with chorizo, game, and cured meats, it is from where we get the word "hodge podge," and despite its rib-sticking, rough-hewn nature, it was in vogue among European aristocrats at the time.
Lastly there was the oyster, a creature whose erotic potential he explored. For Casanova, there were so many oysters in the world, so many women with whom to share oysters, and so many ways in which to do so. He writes, "We amused ourselves with eating oysters after the voluptuous fashion of lovers. We sucked them in one by one after placing them on the other's tongue." There are other reasons why Casanova might have been fond of this briny bivalve. The oyster is one of the sexiest creatures in the animal kingdom, endowed with both male and female organs, constantly spawning into the water, and in fact capable of fertilizing itself.
Casanova, who included at least one homosexual encounter and a number of ménages in his history, fell hard for gender bending. Famously, he became obsessed with a castrato, or male castrated singer named Bellino. His greatest love, Henriette, he met while she was dressed like a man, in bed with another man, with her hair cropped like a boy’s.
The strangest thing that Casanova ate… was probably a bonbon made from his beloved's hair. He commissioned the candies with a confectioner in Corfu, flavoured them with amber, vanilla, and angelica, and kept them in a crystal box. He never consummated the affair.
For more about Giacomo Casanova, his L'Histoire de ma Vie, is a lark, and a very thorough catalogue of 18th century material culture besides. I use the Arthur Machen translation, The Memoirs of Casanova. Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy, by Ian Kelly. It is wry and thorough; better yet, you can get the Audible version and have Benedict Cumberbatch drawl it to you.
Judith Summers' Casanova's Women: The Great Seducer and the Women He Loved (Bloomsbury 2011) is a voluptuous delight. For an even more thorough immersion, listen to Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, or La Nozze Di Figaro, with its sweet melodies, cross-dressing and bed hopping, while sipping either chocolate or champagne.
If you're still restless, Piglet Wine Bar in Temple Bar is holding a seven-course, "Anti-Valentine's" dinner for singles, friends and strangers, inspired by Casanova and his life. Dine on oysters, chicken "in panties" and pasta with petites morts mussels. (VD@Piglet, 14th February, 5.30pm or 8pm, €55 per person. Telephone 707-9786 to reserve.)
Recipe for Orgeat
Adapted from Serious Eats and Imbibe
You can buy this Casanova tipple at Tesco but it does not come close to the real thing, which is surprisingly uncomplicated to make. Traditionally orgeat (pronounced "or-ja") was made with bitter almonds, which gives it a slightly dangerous, hint-of-cyanide aroma. Diehards may also want to try duplicating this flavour by substituting one cup of toasted apricot kernels from apricot pits. Apricot kernels give the characteristic bitter in many of the best almond extracts. Consumed raw they are toxic, but toasted they are wonderful in desserts and infusions. However, a teaspoon of high-quality almond extract will do.
The recipe yields 1 ½ cups syrup, to be used in cocktails or flavour coffee. For a refreshing beverage to drink at breakfast, as Casanova did, I suggest stirring a few tablespoons into milk or almond milk and serving over ice.
2 cups sliced blanched almonds
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ cups water
1 tbsp orange flower water
1 tsp almond extract
1 oz brandy
1. In a food processor, grind the almonds until they are fine. Bring sugar and water to a boil, lower heat and simmer for three minutes. Add pulverized almonds and continue to simmer for another five minutes.
2. Bring the mixture again to a boil, cover the saucepan, and let the mixture steep for at least three hours and up to eight.
3. Strain the mixture through two layers of cheesecloth, stir in the brandy, extract, and orange flower water, and funnel into a bottle or small jar. Refrigerated, the orgeat will keep for up to two weeks.