With Valentine’s Day upon us, I wondered where and how this day of celebrating love and romance began. Unsurprisingly, it’s all a bit murky.
First of all, there were at least two, and maybe three, priests canonized as martyred saints in Catholic records by the name of Valentine or Valentinus. According to legend, one of them began performing marriages in secret when a 3rd century Roman emperor outlawed marriage for young men, believing that men with wives and children made poor soldiers. Eventually discovered, the emperor ordered that he be put to death. During his imprisonment, Valentine fell in love – possibly with the daughter of his jailer – and before his death allegedly wrote her a letter, signing it, “From your Valentine”.
Some say February 14th commemorates the date he died or was buried. But a more popular belief is that the St. Valentine’s feast day was set on this day by the church to Christianize the traditional pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia, a festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to Rome founders Romulus and Remus, which was celebrated on the ides of February (February 15th).
The morning of the Lupercalia feast began with a sacrifice, usually of a goat and a dog, shredding the hide into strips, and slapping the bloody strips on crop fields and the hides of women in the town, thinking this would make them fertile in the coming year. I would personally be horrified and would keep my hide safely hidden under the bed along with my puppy, but apparently women LINED UP for this honor. Later in the day, in a precursor to Match.com, unattached women placed their names in a big urn for the bachelors in town to draw from. Drawing a woman’s name meant he was paired with her for the coming year, often with the result of marriage. Lupercalia was ultimately declared un-Christian by a pope at the end of the 5th century, when he declared February 14th to be celebrated as St. Valentine feast day.
The romance association expanded in the Middle Ages era of courtly love, when Valentine’s greetings became popular. The first mention of Valentine’s romance is Chaucer, in the 1300’s, and the oldest known written valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by the Duke of Orleans to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
By mid- 18th century Victorian England, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900, printed cards became an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged.
Chocolate entered the picture with Richard Cadbury. His company had made great strides in making chocolate and he saw a genius marketing opportunity for his new chocolates. He personally designed elaborately decorated boxes filled with chocolates, that could be kept later for romantic mementos like love letters. Some are still in existence and are considered great collector’s items.
As for wine, wine and romance have successfully blended together for centuries, making it a natural choice for Valentine’s Day. And in honor of the sweetness of romantic love, I vote for sweet wines. Gallo Family Vineyard wines. Particularly their Sweet Red wine and their Riesling, the latter of which I’m pairing today with my dessert for a moist nutmeg infused polenta cake topped with honey yogurt and peach preserves. If you want to pick up some Gallo wine for your own Valentine’s feast, go check out their store locator to find where you can buy them.
It's sheer heresy to not go the chocolate route for Valentine's, but the recipe I chose to pair with Gallo Riesling was this non-traditional dessert that's more about comfort than elegance (although I dressed it up a bit in a fancy pewter dish). I'm trying to at least cut back on sugar since it's highly unlikely I'm going to eliminate it, and this seemed a good way to do it without feeling at all deprived. It's almost a pudding cake, because it's so moist, and should be eaten warm. The honeyed yogurt and peach preserves will slightly melt down over it and be included with every amazing bite. Even my chocoholic husband LOVED it and reached for a second bite before he'd completely eaten the first.
Polenta Cake with Honey Yogurt and Peach Preserves
- Combine the milk, nutmeg and salt in a small pot over medium heat. Just as the milk begins to simmer, stir in the polenta. Stir occasionally for 20 minutes, or until the cornmeal is no longer crunchy and granular.
- Stir in 2 tablespoon honey.
- Whip together the remaining 1 tablespoon honey with the yogurt.
- Scoop the polenta out into two bowls and top with the yogurt and peach preserves.
Compensation was provided by Gallo Family Vineyards via Sunday Supper, LLC. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and are not indicative of the opinions or positions of Gallo Family Vineyards.