Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Musk and Civet in Food: Challenging our Perceptions

 The seductive power of animalic essences in fragrances has been well known among people tuned into perfumes, especially of a vintage nature when true animalics were used in the formula. However how surprised would you be if you found out that not only your eau de toilette or extrait de parfum contained them, but also the delicacies that pass your lips? Yes, actual food and drink containing animalic essences such as musk or civet.

Musk was tentatively touched in one of the discussions I followed with some interest on a popular fragrance board the other day, as I had already experiences with the subject at hand: musk-flavoured candy, (called "musk candy" in Australia or "musk sticks" in other permutations) which seemed to create repulsion rather than attraction. Since everything in our medicine cabinet contains some form of synthesized musk (from soaps to cosmetics through bath oils and even the stuff we brush our teeth with!) and it's perenially a favourite of the functional fragrance industry to put in household cleansers, laundry detergents, and insect repellents, does it come as any surprise that artifically-flavoured food is also being aromatized with certain synthetic musk variants? Musk is an added component in fruit flavors, in chocolates, licorice, candies, chewing gum and even vanilla flavourings or puddings. 
The cozy, inviting smell of musk which we associate with warm, living and heaving human skin has an illustrious ancenstry that can be traced back to the Silk Route. Legends touch upon the tales of Chinese concubines being fed natural* musk-flavoured food so that during lovemaking their skin would sweat pure essence acting as a powerful aphrodisiac.

Is it any wonder then it has appeared even in a Lifesavers single flavour? That particular "musk candy" is an Australian idiosyncratic delicacy, much like Vegemite (the yeasty spread that rivals the British equivalent Marmite in the terrain of acquired taste). There also appears to be some form of edible Musk Sticks, by [supermarket private brand, as I learn from my Aussie readers] Coles, which appear to replicate the odour of incense sticks aromatized with musk. There is also the Beechies "musk gum" variety and Baba "musk melon candy". It's a whole industry!

Having been on the receiving end of a gift package that also entailed those "Musk Lifesavers", albeit of a different packaging (solid red with white lettering) and maker (not Nestle) than those linked above, sent by an Australian friend I can attest that soli-musk candies are not repulsive or nauseating. They're tinged with a "clean" soapy lace of almost aldehydic aftertaste that is certainly strange to encounter in a hard candy but which once you try you can appreciate for what it is.

Perhaps coming from a culture that traditionally and continuously has indulged in odours and flavours such as turpentine (the undertone of some ouzo varieties), of anise and mastic (used in several local liquors but also neat in bread and dough products), of cumin (an essential component of meatballs and pasturma) and of garlic (too numerous recipes to mention) along with an experimental spirit in cuisine that embraces squids, kalamari, octupus and snails cooked in red wine in all their squishy glory, as well as ripe cheeses that have mould, these come as no big surprise to me. And my musk affinities firmly in place, accounting for collecting musk fragrances of every possible nuance from the opalescent to the fetid, you might be warned that your own experience might be different. Still, it is an interesting proposition and worth keeping in mind should you find yourself faced with the option of tasting for yourself.

And what about civet in recipes, that fecal-smelling aroma that derives from the anal glands of the civet cat, farmed in Ethiopia and small erratic groups in other exotic locales at the moment? Civet highly diluted in fragrance formulae can have a marvellous effect of opening the bouquet, especially of floral blends, and thus adding texture, depth and radiance. An animalic touch that cannot be pinpointed as fecal as it truly is in concentration, yet is unmistakeably there: if you need proof open a vintage flacon of Jicky extrait de parfum and wait for it to make its pronounced magic appearence.

Although civet essence is not as wondrously diversified in synthesized forms as that of musk because the extraction of civet aromatic essence does not entail killing the animal ~and therefore has not had the chance to enter our plates in comparable droves~ civet does make an infamous appearence in drink: in coffee. This very special and most expensive coffee (£100 - £300 per lb. at time of writing), named Kopi Luwak, is produced by feeding the civet cats coffee berries which cannot be digested along with their food (much like we'd naturally dispose the bran of whole-grain cereals) and waiting for them to come out the natural way. The passing through the anal region stimulates the production of the anal glands secreting the valuable civet essence that is so prized in perfumery, so the beans gain a whole new dimension of animalic aroma. Further treating by roasting produces a coffee brew that is said to be among the very best, good to the last dropping so to speak. I admit although I have been intrigued by the idea for years and searching high and low for it locally among batches of Jamaican Blue Mountain and other assorted exclusive imports, it was only by the powers of the Internet and the intervention of a penpal that I came upon this link. I think I will take the plunge, bypassing the raw product we're invited to clean and roast ourselves, rather opting for a generous pouch. If on the other hand civet cats are too exotic for you, there is also weasel coffee - made from berries which have been regurgitated by, you guessed it, weasels.

And for those wondering, castoreum is also featured as a flavouring, in chewing gum and cigarettes no less, but its restricted use of the natural essence has probably put a stop to the practice. As to ambergris/grey amber, the divine marine/brine-like essence coming from the expulged cuttlefish residue in the digestive track of sperm whales, found floating in the ocean, I would be standing in line to taste something aromatized with its refined aroma. Brillat-Savarin recommended an infusion called "chocolate ambre" which was essentially chocolate drink heavily aromatized with ambregris. Heaven...

*The natural musk essence comes from Moschus moschiferus moschiferus or musk deer from the Himalayas but the cruelty necessitated for extracting the musk pouch from its genital region resulting in killing the animal has effected a prohibition on its hunting. Today musk essences at almost 100% are produced synthetically.

Pic Against the Grain by thatotherguy/flickr. Cartoon of civet coffee production spoof provided by Concord on MUA. 

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: The Musk Series (everything about the musk note, natural or synthetic, its cultural aspirations, its various musky fragrance types on the market)


  1. Anonymous16:17

    Dear Helg,

    The sadist side of me thinks it's a really cute piece...but the other part of me screams, "You read this first thing in the morning? Right before breakfast?"

    Well, Pierre Hermé already put white truffles in his macarons...maybe soon enough he would start introducing civet, castoreum flavoured macarons with musk fillings! Yum.


  2. Helg, AbdesSalaamAttar (as he now prefers to be called) has written extensively on scenting tea, wine and food with ambergris on my yahoo group. Information may also reside on his site.
    BTW, that kopi lowak illustration used to be an animated gif - the hand pulled the tail and yes, it gushed out, lol.
    I have another illustration of the product I'll email you. Be prepared!

    And no, I have not eaten musk, civet, kopi lowak, ambergris or others of the like. Just not my 'cup of tea' as they say.

  3. Anonymous22:42

    Interesting piece (as always!). I heartily agree with Anya on the eating part, and except for my carefully chosen perfumes, I live in a fragrance free environment.

    However, the reference to Kopi Luwak coffee made me chuckle in remembrance. If you haven't seen The Bucket List, it is featured in that movie, and I highly recommend it (the movie, not the coffee).

  4. I just learned so much from this posting... who knew about the coffee?!

    Hmmm... not ready for those scents in my food but would be interested to find a house cleaner with musk scent- all natural of course...

  5. Hi, E! Great article. I'm very curious about how the coffee turns out for you... *gets in line to try some*

  6. A,

    LOL, yes, I admit these sound a little outré. But then we're intrigued by those, aren't we?
    I wouldn't put it past Pierre Hermé to be honest ;-)

  7. Anya,

    I will of course search Salaam's extensive and wonderful site.

    I know this was supposed to be a gif moving image, but try as I might Blogger reverts it to jpg (grrr).

    And LOL on the unprocessed beans pic.

  8. R,

    thanks for saying so.
    I wonder if it is indeed doable to live in a fragrance-free environment nowadays though: it seems we're being bombarded with smells (artificial ones I mean) everywhere we go...sometimes it's quite annoying, like white noise.

  9. Daily,

    I believe there are hundreds of cleaners with synthesized musks, but not natural (it's verboten for ethical reasons to extract musk the natural way). I kinda think you meant a natural cleaner made of eco-friendly ingredients though but with some acceptable scent of musk? I would like to find that myself.

  10. J,

    thanks for the compliment, honey. I will certainly report back when/if I find out ;-)

  11. Anonymous13:44

    Gross-out alert!

    Many animals have glands similar to the civet cats. "Water" breeds of dogs (like labs) are known for being extra-stinky because they have very active ones -- the waxy substance they produce helps waterproof the fur. As far as I know there is no industrial use for doggie output.

    My parents had a lab-spaniel mix dog once that had to be expressed weekly. The vet suggested a higher-fiber diet, but I never would've thought of coffee beans!

    You are brave indeed...

  12. P,

    sounds very logical!
    I know about some dogs having to be "expressed", although they wouldn't want someone else to do it for them (recall one who was taking rounds and rounds around herself, butt on the floor trying to do that: was a mix of spaniel too!)

    Ah, let's see if I do take the plunge on the coffee. The candies were easy :-)

  13. I'm sorry I am so late to this post--it's wonderful! I would be game to taste any of the foods you named. I had heard of the coffee, but none of the rest. Musk and ambergris-flavored delicacies sound delightful. Civet and castoreum--well, I'll reserve judgment until I experience them.

  14. PS. I hope Anya will not be offended if I say I would love to taste a food that captured the unique marine/floral quality of Fairchild-- divine seafood ;-)

  15. Anonymous07:44

    Thanks. I love this post as it taps into my "foodie" proclivities as well as my love of perfumery.

    I have to say I'm now fascinated by the musk candies and I'll be on a quest to find them some day. I can't say they sound luscious to me, but I love trying all kinds of new flavors and scents. Thanks for the education!

  16. Thank you M!
    Another adventurous spirit in our midsts, welcome to the club :-)

    I admit that castoreum is a bit challenging for me as well: if you have smelled it in its raw form it's so challenging, so densely animalic and bitter (then of course so is civet in its own way but I deduce the coffee flavour is strong enough to balance it out).

  17. I am joining in the Anya shoutout that a Fairchild-scented foodstuff should exist!

  18. Joe,

    very glad the article appealed to you, you're very welcome. I like to inject a little of the other senses too into Perfume Shrine when I can :-)
    I believe the musk candies can be arranged for with an Australian swapper. I would even venture that someone must be selling them on Ebay (perhaps).

  19. I actually found a couple Australian specialty food shops in the US that do mail order and sell musk sticks & lifesavers, but the shipping is prohibitive on such low-cost items. I plan to look next time I browse at my local (mostly Asian) import shop, which has a mindboggling variety of foods from every continent. I get rosewater from there, and I already enjoy floral-flavored sweets when I can find them, especially those made with rose- or orange-flower water, and violet pastilles.

    Also, since you brought up turpentine & ouzo, I should mention that I really enjoy drinking retsina on occasion -- it's such a wonderful, unique flavor and aroma.

  20. Joe,

    this seems like a sound course and good luck! (yeah, isn't shipping a b!tch!).I love cooking with floral waters: ornage water for cookies and those Xmas special things we only make locally, rosewater for jelly things and icecream...mmmm....

    Retsina does have a turpentine aroma by itself, true! (some varieties have tree's resin in it, that's why). Goes very well with chargrilled meat or fishfood ;-)

  21. Fairchild food, eh? Hmmmm......well, everything in the perfume you have on hand is natural and edible. Perhaps a tiny drop in vodka? Mixed with honey and spread on bread? You two ladies are indeed the wildchild that Fairchild is all about!

  22. Miss Heliotrope01:59

    I know this is old & my comment not that important, but as an Australian I must say - musk sticks are made by many different companies - Coles is just a supermarket.

  23. On the contrary, miss Heliotrope, your comment IS important. Thank you, I did not know that. I will specify it it's a white brand for a supermarket. Very helpful, thanks for commenting!

  24. I guess the slightly gross story how I found out can be skipped.

    However, humans do produce their own musks too. I consulted this fact with my friend who is a veterinary doctor and isn't so anatomically challenged as yours truly, educated in humanities. She said that yeah, obviously, but there's no organ akin to the anal glands her clients need to evacuate from time to time, that it's secreted onto the skin in the anal region. It is easily verified if you get some grease on your hand and run said hand between the buttocks (for the dirtier minds: no poo involved) and then sniff your hand.

    Said vet friend pondered that if there was a viable way to extract the nice-smelling musks from the products of feline and canine gentlemen, she'd get filthy rich. When I have nothing better to do, I'll check the internet whether there's some information.

  25. L,

    I suppose this is indeed a form of human musk. Lovers are attracted to it (yes, no poo involved, dirty minded people) so it makes perfect sense what you say.
    Now as to how to make this tangible and viable apart from getting a sniff during love making and how to get nice-smelling musks from feline and canine specimens, I'm afraid I'm at a loss. Very interested if you find more info though!! It's a fascinating subject!


Type your comment in the box, choose the Profile option you prefer from the drop down menu, below text box (Anonymous is fine too!) and hit Publish.
And you're set!

This Month's Popular Posts on Perfume Shrine