Friday, January 15, 2010

AMBERGRIS: The Lost Chord Found


It would be simple to tell you that Ambergris is a soft, gray, stone-like matter originating in the intestine of the Physeter catodon (sperm whale) that is used as an anchoring note in perfume. But that would be doing this magical substance such an injustice and there is so much more to tell. Thanks to the wonderful Ambergris Co., NZ I have gotten to know its alluring ways and can tell the tale.

Ambergris is a dusky jewel created in a whale’s stomach like an oyster creates a pearl by surrounding an irritant. It is formed around the sharp beaks of cuttlefish/squid (that are one of their favorite foods) and other sharp objects in the whale’s stomach to ease the passage out of the mighty beast. Being exponentially larger than an oyster, chunks of this miraculous substance have been found as large as 1400 pounds. What are most often found are lumps of 15g to 50 kg that are light and grayish in color. In fact, fresh Ambergris is rather revolting stuff. It is the gentle action of sea and salt and sun that metamorphoses ambergris into an exquisite perfume in a transformational ocean voyage that takes years.

Although it can be taken from a slaughtered whale and artificially aged, thankfully it is now nearly always harvested on beaches around the world by fortunate beachcombers who recognize the soft gray rocks. At nearly $10,000 a pound, it is a treasure indeed and terribly rare. Most of us know the scent of ambergris only through perfumer's chemical recreations.

Christmas 2009, Heston Blumenthal made a great deal of fuss about using authentic ambergris in his Christmas dinner for the BBC. He prepared it in a cucumber geleé with a caviar sorbet to great acclaim from those lucky enough to partake in the extraordinary meal.

What is it that makes Ambergris so special? As Elena at the brilliant blog Perfume Shrine says:Natural ambergris has a wonderful tinge of saltiness, almost brine-y, encompassing elements of skin-like musky tones, and even a subtly sweetish accent. Its greatest attribute is its capacity for rendering a composition rounder, especially in oriental perfumes or in floral compositions where it melds the notes into one and brings out their best qualities. It clings on to fabric too, through repeated washings even, becoming ever sweeter with time. Therefore it is prized for its fixative power: the ability to anchor more volatile notes and make them last.

What many people do not know is that Ambergris was not only used as a perfume but had a subtle role as an ingredient in food and drink for many centuries. No wonder, since ambergris makes everything it touches more of what it is... an amazing quality. One reads of its use in recipes of the Renaissance but it appeared more often in earlier books, under the influence of mediaeval Arab traditions (The Arabs regarded ambergris as an aphrodisiac and used it for this purpose). Its use survived in France into the 19th century as an additive for chocolate as a drink, witness a famous passage in Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) hailing chocolat ambré as one of the most effective restoratives.

La Chocolatiere, Liotard 1744

"This is the appropriate place," says Brillat-Savarin, "to speak of the properties of chocolat ambré, chocolate with ambergris, properties which I have verified through many experiments, and the results of which I proudly present to my readers. Therefore, let every man who has drunk a few too many draughts from the cup of pleasure, every man who has spent a good portion of time working that ought to have been spent sleeping, every witty man who feels he has temporarily become dull, every man who finds the air close, the time long and the atmosphere oppressive, every man who finds himself tormented by an obsession that takes away his free thought, let all of them, we say, administer to themselves a good half litre of chocolat ambré, at the rate of 60 to 72 grains of amber per half kilogram(pound), and they will experience a marvel."

In The Physiology of Taste Brillat–Savarin also praises ambergris chocolate as the “chocolate of the afflicted.” “I knew that Marshal Richelieu, of glorious memory,” he writes, “constantly chewed ambergris lozenges; as for myself, when I get one of those days when the weight of age makes itself felt––a painful thought––or when one feels oppressed by an unknown force, I add a knob of ambergris the size of a bean, pounded with sugar, to a strong cup of chocolate, and I always find my condition improving marvelously.”

Chocolatiere, 1759

Worldwide Gourmet tells us "It was from Madame d'Arestrel, superior of the Convent of the Visitation in Belley, that Brillat-Savarin learned the art of making a good chocolate, a mixture of Caraque, Sainte-Madeleine and Berbice. " 'Monsieur,' Madame d'Arestrel said to me over 50 years ago, 'When you would like to have some good chocolate, have it made the night before in a faience coffee pot and leave it. Resting overnight will concentrate it and give it a velvetiness that makes it even better. The good Lord cannot object to this little refinement, since He Himself is all excellence.'"

18th century Meisen chocolate pot

Antonin Carême, the famous cook to Talleyrand, Tzar Alexander and the Prince Regent of England, refined the recipe even further by adding cognac, honey, fresh cream and toasted almonds.

18th c chocolate cups

Larousse Gastronomique laments “such chocolate no longer exists.” It's a pity that ambergris figures only as a memory in confectionery and perfumery today. Hunting some down for your own taste buds is well worth the effort, however. Whether added to coffee or chocolate, I can attest to its rewarding effects and its abiding aroma that mysteriously lingers through the day. Once savored, its bouquet is forever seared in one's memory."

Also from Brillat-Savarin via Worldwide Gourmet:“Happy chocolate, which after crossing the world, 
In women's smiles 
Finds death in a melting delicious kiss from their mouth."

Chocolate Ambre for 2

6 oz boiling water

1 oz shaved 100% chocolate

1 tsp sugar OR

1 tsp. mild honey (Champlain Valley Apiaries)

1 bean sized piece of Ambergris

Crush the Ambergris into sandy particles with the sugar (or in the honey) and put it and the boiling water into a large heat proof cup and stir until dissolved.

Next add the shaved chocolate and stir until dissolved.

Store the chocolate, covered at room temperature overnight. The chocolate will swell and the mixture will become velvety. At this point you can either use a Cappuccino steamer to froth and warm the chocolate or heat it gently and whisk into a froth ( a double boiler would do so that you could leave the chocolate in its cup). Take care when you pour the chocolate that you do not lose the grains of Ambergris. Another alternative to this is to heat the Ambergris in the bowl of 1 or 2 spoons over a low flame… this only takes seconds so take care! Then put the spoons into the hot chocolate and let sit with the chocolate overnight. Use the spoons to drink the chocolate licking the spoon decadently, the Ambergris becomes waxy and stubborn on the spoon… but the work is worth it… serve in small espresso cups.

Alternately, add a tablespoon of cognac and a dollop of cream for a stronger drink that could be served in a stemmed glass. Either way you will have an extraordinary treat.

***Lest you think this an extravagance, a few grams will more than suffice ( at $20 a gram) for a few servings of chocolate

Next, Ambergris and chocolate with jasmine… in the style of Cosimo de Medici III. Romance in a cup.


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What an amazing post! :O When we were in NZ last year we went whale watching and they told us about amberigris but we didn't realise that it was used in food too. An amazing post as always - you never failt o surprise us! Thankyou! :D

Sarah said...

How exquisite! And educational. I'll be looking for ambergris now.

Deana Sidney said...

Lorraine> I can't wait to go to NZ....the other side of the world for me...but so beautiful. Do please contact the lovely people at Ambergris Co. NZ (just click on their name at the top of the post). They have it to sell and are even working on pre-dissolved ambergris for adding to your recipe. I really wish I could share the flavor/scent with's that amazing.
Sarah> Same advice... how often do you get to try something this cool?
Honestly, I've been wanting to do this for years and years...ever since the first time I read about it in an ancient cookbook!!!

Mari @ Once Upon a Plate said...

My goodness, it is always such a pleasure to visit with you! I learn something new each time.

With the beautiful name "Ambergis for 2" how could it not be delightful?!

I could hardly take my eyes off your beautiful chocolate pot and exquisite mugs. Thank you for sharing.

Becky said...

Fascinating! Such an amazing substance it must be ...

Deana Sidney said...

Mari> Thanks for stopping by, as always. The chocolate cups are small... German, late 19thc. about the size of espresso cups... this stuff is lethal! Honestly, I've been working on the recipes and am addicted.
I hope you all get to try it!!

Becky> For a poet... it will speak to drinking a great romance novel!

Y said...

Lovely post, thanks for sharing! I've been intrigued by ambergris ever since seeing that Heston episode.

Deana Sidney said...

Y> thanks for the visit... I have yet to see the episode..hopefully it will be on utube soon!!!

Faith said...

I always learn so much from your posts! This is really fascinating...I knew ambergris was used in perfume but I never knew it was also used in food. (And before this I knew generally where it came from, but I didn't know exactly what it was.) Thanks for the info!

Those chocolate cups are gorgeous!

Tasty Trix said...

I have to say, this is the most educational blog post I have read for quite some time, and really really interesting. Oh, I am now obsessed with the idea of trying ambergris! So cool.

Deana Sidney said...

Faith> I wish we had smell-o-vision because this is the stuff of legend and it really deserves it. It takes years to ripen in the ocean... how cool is that?
Trix> WIsh you lived around NYC ... I'd invite you for a cup! Do yourself a favor at Valentines and get yourself some!

Dianna said...

That's so interesting! Thanks for doing your research so well. I read Moby-Dick last year, and ambergris was mentioned, but I didn't know it was eaten!

c3 said...

I've come here rarely, and always from Foodgawker. Every time, I'm glad I did. Your posts are fascinating and informative, and beautifully compiled. This one is no exception, and the thought of ambergris in food will stay with me until I have the good fortune to experience it for myself. Thank you.

Deana Sidney said...

Mrs Mordecai> this is what I love about doing this blog... it helps readers get a sense of what things were like with food and dishes when they read. Good for you and thanks for stopping by.

C3> drop by often... nice to have company! I really encourage you to try the ambergris... next post is more ambergris... as good as it gets.

La Table De Nana said...

It is interesting! I started watching HB's Christmas special and I got sidetracked by the feeling of one segment:( It wasn't joyous ..I should have stuck to it:)

Love all the photos and descriptions:)

Deana Sidney said...

La table de Nana> I want to watch HB's special 2009..saw 2008... haven't figured out how yet!!

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

A very interesting post! I really loved your descriptions. Ambergris sure is a very interesting ingredient...



Deana Sidney said...

Rosa>Coming from you that's great praise... you have a great blog! I hope everyone gets to try ambergris... it won't disappoint!

Mae said...

Another amazing post. I'd looked up info on ambergis when I read your previous post mentioning it, but never found such a wealth of knowledge. Love it!

Deana Sidney said...

Mae> Thanks... I know this was all new to me... it is magic stuff... I really can't praise it enough... wish I could have a big stash to use in everything!

Carolyn Jungw said...

I have never seen a chunk of this, but I have heard of it. I actually didn't know you could consume it. I ran across it from a perfume-maker in Berkeley. It smells so wonderful and intriguing. And it's the most expensive perfume that she sells.

Deana Sidney said...

Carolyn> This is something I have wanted to do for years... its use in food is legendary... it was great to try it at last... you should try!

Larry said...


Love your blog!!!

I'm a major foodie, primarily ancient cuisine, and was fascinated by this topic.

Do you know of anyone who sales Ambergris in smaller amounts than 4 grams? I would really like to try this, but would rather not pay $100 + S&H.

Feel free to contact me at: correus @ yahoo dot com

Thanks for such an awesome site!