Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ambergris-laced Chocolate, Negus Cocktail & Cooking with Grey Amber

Have you ever tasted ambergris? If you stop to think that it was prized for centuries not only for its aromatic, but also aphrodisiac qualities, the question becomes less strange.  
The history of ambergris consumption is both varied and intriguing: At Falstaff's table (a character possibly based on Sir John Oldcastle) his favourite Sack wine was spiced with ambergris. Cardinal Richelieu ate ambregris-flavored chocolates and grey amber pastilles with gusto! On a sinister note, King Charles II of England famously and decadently breakfasted on eggs with (then as now very expensive) ambergris, and his mysterious death following a sudden stroke on February 16, 1685, gave rise to rumors of foul play; ambergris could have been the necessary concealer of poison, thanks to its rich, complex flavour. Indeed as I crumble a tiny lump to heat with my experimental eggs, I perceive that the pumice-like substance melts away easily with heat, imparting a delicious aroma. Even more decadently, during the Renaissance a dessert of iris flower jelly with ambergris posset (pictured below) was made for lords and queens; shooting two birds of expensive and fragrant materials with one stone!

But not all was for pleasure: During the Black Plague ambergris was considered to be prophylactic use. Historian Paul Freedman writes that "Ambergris was considered the sovereign preventative drug against the plague." and people carried a grain in their pocket to stave away the miasma in the air. Alas, it didn't work so well, but they must have smelled good while at it.

Later, the renowned gastronome Brillat-Savarin recommended a chocolate drink for warming up, boosting the immune system and at the same time savouring the best of refined foods: "Chocolat Ambré" (of which I present a recipe below) was made with shaved dark chocolate and hot water, laced with a substantial amount of grinded ambergris. La Marquise de Pompadour was fond of eating truffles and celery soups followed by cups of chocolat ambré "to raise the spirits and arouse the passions".

In the Middle East men consume ambergris to stimulate their sexual prowess while women believe the practice helps with infertility. Ibn Battuta, known as "the Traveler of Islam", narrates to have observed with astonishment in a city in Persia that people ate hashish and ambergris unabashedly, possibly believing ambergris to boost the narcotic effect of the drug. A lusciously erotic experience involves crushing a small dried lump of ambergris (percehd on the edge of the spoon) into organic coconut oil and allowing it to macerate for months before using. In Morocco it is traditional to use ambergris with tea; how a grain of ambergris sticked  inside the teapot's cover flavors the tea by mere contact with the vapor for years along is a miracle of nature's essences. As Karen of Globetrotter Diaries says, "Ambergris to liquids is much like 3D to movies; it gives new meaning to the otherwise familiar." I prefer to call it umami for the nose, the missing link in the realm of the senses.

"But is it safe to ingest?", you might be asking yourselves. Relax. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, ambergris was used by bartenders, liquor rectifiers, and makers of cordials & syrups as an additive in many products. But ambergris is never used alone: It is always rubbed with sugar, which acts by minutely separating the particles of the material,and then married to several other aromatics. The scents best suited to this purpose are acetic and nitric ether, oil of wintergreen, oil of lemon, oil of mace and creosote. As with truffles, ambergris has to be shaved very thinkly and added to warm drinks, so as to melt and not create a sediment.

Ambergris is a substance that the wild sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus Lin=P.catodon) regurgitates naturally; a sort of cetacean furball, clotted whale cholesterol to protect the animal's digestive track of remnants of indigested cuttlefish, squid beaks etc. [To learn all the info you need on what ambergris is and its differences with amber resin as well as its differences with Ambrox/Ambroxan refer to these herein linked articles.]

When it is fresh, ambergris has nearly no value, because its smell is extremely fecal and it has no great use for perfumery. But let it float on the ocean for some years and it gains a beautiful patina that famously chemist Gunther Ohloff described as “humid, earthy, fecal, marine, algoid, tobacco-like, sandalwood-like, sweet, animal, musky and radiant”.  It's difficult to improve on his words, but to me ambergris is that rare thing; an animalic essence that can be used even neat: its oily, marine, skin-friendly aura is intimate, but subtle, warming on the skin with an earthy, algae-reminiscent scent of bodies after a sea dip.
Whalefishers of the 18th and 19th century knew its worth. Watching "Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World", I was not surprised to come across an awe-eyed sailor dreaming of catching a whaler loot: "she'll be loaded with gold and ambergris and all the gems of Araby".

"Nor indeed can the whale possibly be otherwise than fragrant, when, as a general thing, he enjoys such high health; taking abundance of exercise; always out of doors; though, it is true, seldom in the open air. I say, that the motion of a Sperm Whale's flukes above water dispenses a perfume, as when a musk-scented lady rustles her dress in a warm parlor. What then shall I liken the Sperm Whale to for fragrance, considering his magnitude? Must it not be to that famous elephant, with jewelled tusks, and redolent with myrrh, which was led out of an Indian town to do honour to Alexander the Great?"
H.Melville's poetic associations in a whole chapter devoted to it in Moby Dick notwithstanding (with mentions of its use in Turkish cooking), the ocean and sun not only change the initially dark brown floating lumps into light greyish or even yellowish, but they also break down the basic building block, ambreine, into a quantity of products which account for the complex smell of ambergris. These lend themselves to complimenting a variety of ingredients in foods and beverages, as attested by the recipes aimed to help you cook with ambergris below.

You can buy some of the exceptional free-floating (i.e. ethically harvested) ambergris at profumo.it. (Currently I only see tincture available, but raw small lumps were available before, hopefully again)
Also available on Ambergris New Zealand

Recipe: Chocolat Ambré: chocolate drink laced with natural ambergris

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in Larousse Gastronomique: The Encyclopedia of Food, Wine and Cooking by Prosper Montagné with the collaboration of Dr. Gottschalk, 1961 English Ed.

"Chocolate is one of the most efficient restoratives.  All of those who have to work when they might be sleeping, men of wit who feel temporarily deprived of their intellectual powers, those who find the weather oppressive, time dragging, the atmosphere depressing; those who are tormented by some preoccupation which deprives them of the liberty of thought; let all such men imbibe a half-litre of chocolat ambré, using 60 to 72 grains of amber per half-kilo, and they will be amazed.  The grain, an old-fashioned measure, equals about the twentieth part of a gram, and we might add, ambre gris is meant, a greyish substance which exhales a smell analogous to musk, and not yellow amber, which is an entirely different thing.  Such chocolate no longer exists. In Méditation VI, Brillat-Savarin refers to chocolat ambré as 'the chocolate of the afflicted': 'I knew that Marshal Richelieu, of glorious memory, 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 marvellously.  The burden of life becomes lighter, thought flows with ease and I do not suffer from insomnia, which would have been the invariable result of a cup of coffee taken for the same purpose'. Brillat-Savarin also praises the powers of ambergris in his Magistères Restaurants."
[source Ray Girvan, Technical Author,The Apothecary's Drawer.]

Recipe for Negus, a drink of Port or Sherry, sugar & spices, hot water and natural ambergris:

1 bottle of sherry (or port), 2-1/2 pints of water, juice of 1 lemon, a little of the peel rubbed off on sugar; grated nutmeg, and sugar to taste; add one drop essence of ambergris, or 10 drops of vanilla; all to be made and drunk warm.

source: Aerated Waters & How to Make Them; Together with Receipts for Non-Alcoholic Cordials & a Short Essay on Flavouringby Joseph Goold - J. Gilbert Smith, Publisher, London - 1880 - p.110

Recipe for Ambergris Wedding Punch
Take 1/2 pint of pineapple juice.
1 pint of lemon juice.
1 pint of lemon syrup.
1 pint of claret or port wine.
1/2 pound of sugar.
1/2 pint of boiling water.
6 grains of vanilla.
1 grain of ambergris.
1 pint of strong brandy.
Rub the vanilla and ambergris with the sugar in the brandy thoroughly; let it stand in a corked bottle for a few hours, shaking occasionally. Then add the lemon juice, pineapple juice and wine; filter through flannel, and lastly add the syrup.

source: The Mixicologist by C. F. Lawlor - Lawlor & Co., Publishers, Cincinnati - 1895 - p. 21

For the really adventurous or carnivores with access to good, old, rural meat, there is an English recipe for "ambergris puddings" (i.e. sausages with ambergris) from Lord Conway's Ambergris Puddings from The Queen's Closet Newly Opened (London: 1655) on this link.

And finally a scent formula, for Eau de Cologne à l'Ambergris (Ambergris Cologne Water)

21 ounces of oil of orange.
21 ounces of oil of bergamot.
2-5/8 ounces of oil of neroli.
6-9/16 ounces of oil of lavender.
3-15/16 ounces of oil of rosemary.
63 drops of oil of roses.
126 drops of oil of cloves.
200 drops of essence of ambergris.
Dissolve in 10 gallons of alcohol, 95 per cent.

Many thanks to Abdes Salaam of Profumo.it
Photo of Renaissance dessert with iris flower jelly and ambergris posset recreated by Bombass & Parr via Caroline's Miscellany

Painting of Madame de Pompadour by François-Hubert Drouais


  1. Fascinating! Thank you. I have always wanted to smell natural amergris. I love perfumes with the note, but I think most I have tried have been synthetic imitations. Except maybe the Opus Oils. Anyway, i had no idea you could eat it. Maybe i will buy some from profumo.it, thanks for the link.

  2. Fiordiligi14:45

    Well, I love ambergris in perfumery (original Dioressence!) but I'm not sure about actually ingesting it; not for me. I think!

    What an interesting piece - thank you.

  3. Anonymous07:23

    Wow, I mean I had no idea, what an excellent, excellent post, thanks for the inspiration, although like someone above I wonder if it's for me. Do you know where I can get lumps of this ingredient, the link only points to tinctur (spelling?) and there's no mention of that in recipes.


  4. Sofi10:56

    Thank you for this excellent review!I have always been interested in natural amergis!If you know where I can find lumps of this ingredients let me konw please!Thank you again.

  5. K,

    I don't believe the O.O. brand uses real ambergris. I would be much surprised to hear otherwise from official lips.
    A better bet would be for you to smell <a href="http://perfumeshrine.blogspot.com/2009/01/lantimatiere-by-les-nez-fragrance.html><i>L'Antimatiere</i> by Les Nez</a>: it's full of it. ;-)
    Yes, do check out the Italian site, Abdes is just the man to guide you through natural essences.

  6. D,

    glad you found it interesting reading!
    Well, not all of us need to eat it, but you know me, I'm naturally adventurous with smells and tastes. :-)

    (Got your emails, will reply soon; heart-broken about the loss...)

  7. Aline,

    thank you for commenting.
    I believe Abdes in the link mentioned should have some (maybe email him) or else Google New Zealand ambergris: it gets you to the harvesters, I don't recall their name off the top of my head right now. (Sorry).

  8. Sofi,

    you're very welcome! Glad you enjoyed.

    Natural ambergris was available at Profumo.it till recently I believe. I'd email Salaam and ask. He should be able to guide you at any rate.

  9. That was super interesting. I wonder how likely it would be to find an ambergris stone on the beach? I will be in Hawaii in Dec. I know I will be looking!

  10. If I may say, a good vintage port and ambergris make one of the best things I have ever had the pleasure of drinking... it is insanely good.

    Having made the chocolate you mentioned I can also say it is excellent... but you may enjoy a further addition of jasmine to the mix... an idea from the court of Cosimo De Medici, III.

    Thanks for the great post... so much new information!

    PS can tell you where to get the ambergris nuggets, if you would like.

  11. Thank you D! How are you? Long time since we last talked.

    Of course, your input is greatly appreciated. Port sounds delicious. Personally I prefer a local Debina sparkling wine myself: its naturally mineral aftertaste is wonderful to accompany the marine note of ambergris!
    Jasmine in the chocolate is wildly decadent, mmmmmm.....(must try! thanks!)

    I have received lots of requests on how to source ambergris in its raw state and so went back through my email archives to find out my source; it's now linked on the main article. (@Stelma, please take note).
    I believe we got our lumps through the same source?

  12. Stelma,

    enjoy your Hawaii beach holiday (ahhh, should be delightful in December) and it doesn't hurt to look.
    In the meantime, I have included the link on where to buy some in the main article, but here it is again.

  13. Wonderful article!!

    Always amazing to see just how much more...connected, people in the past were. They made full use and took full advantage of flavor and fragrance materials, and did not have the fear that many of us do today.

    I work in Chinese Medicine, and I DO employ some materials from Medicine/Perfumery in cooking, and I can attest...WOW!

    Since we were talking about Ambergris, I wanted to write a few quick things about it from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective...

    Ambergris in Chinese is called Lóng Xián Xiāng or 龙涎香, 龙腹香, 鲸涎香

    We say that it is Sweet (nourishing), Sour (astringing), and Warming in Nature.

    It enters the Heart, Liver, Lung, and Kidney Meridians.

    1. It promotes the flow of Qi, Activates the Blood (both of which help us to unwind from stress, as well as oxygenate the cells and organs)

    2. Dissipates Nodules (which is to say that it "softens hardness")

    3. Alleviates Pain (in Chinese, there is a saying, "Where there is no Flow, there is Pain. Where there is Pain there is no Flow". This is a statement that comes out of the fact that it moves Qi and Activates Blood.

    4. It also induces Diuresis (urination, draining Damp Accumulations), and treats Stranguria (difficulty urinating).

    Dosages for Oral Administration range from 0.3-1 grams.

    As mentioned in the article, it can also be affixed to the top of a tea pot lid. I might add that it can also be affixed to the surface of a solid silver spoon, and then used to stir for 15 seconds or so into any warm beverage.

    -->Use in this manner--in micro-doses--will last several years. Medically, we use this method for treatment of Yin Deficiency of the Liver and Kidneys. Many neurological disorders fall into this category. Using this method also takes advantage of the "exalting" property of Ambergris, and it will add a 3-Dimentional quality to whatever beverage it is used in. In the East, it was most commonly done with Tea. In the Middle East--with black coffee.

    I have a host of other great ways to use this wonderful material as a medicinal and food additive, but would not want to overwhelm everyone. Just figured I'd share, as this really IS an incredible material to be harnessed in both the fragrance and gustatory worlds, as well as in medicine!

  14. JK,

    wow, thanks for the nice compliment and thanks for the amazing info!


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