June 4, 2012
Herman Melville devoted an entire chapter of Moby Dick to the substance. The Chinese believed it to be dragon spittle hardened by the sea. Ambergris (that’s French for gray amber) is an opaque, hardened orb that floats for months or years at sea, until its waxy mass washes up ashore. It has have sometimes been described, inaccurately, as sperm whale vomit. Ambergris comes out the other end—the cetacean approximation of a human gallbladders stone, formed in a whale stomach as a protective barrier around sharp, indigestible squid beaks, and then excreted.
Of all the world’s feces, ambergris may be the only one prized as an ingredient in fragrances, cocktails and medicines. It’s eaten, too. Persian sherbets once included ambergris along with water and lemon. Casanova apparently added it to his chocolate mousse as an aphrodisiac. French gastronome Brillat-Savarin recommended a shilling’s worth of ambergris in a tonic of chocolate and sugar, which he claimed would render life more easy, like coffee without the restless sleeplessness.
Christopher Kemp, a molecular biologist who works (by intention, it seems) at a desk “cluttered with marginalia” exhumes these enigmatic tidbits in his new book Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. He includes obscure recipes found in footnotes to the annotated edition of John Milton’s Paradise Regained, in which “grey amber” was melted like butter onto roasted game encased in pastries.
Kemp also cooks with a piece of white ambergris: “It crumbles like truffle. I fold it carefully into the eggs with a fork. Rising and mingling with curls of steam from the eggs, the familiar odor of ambergris begins to fill and clog my throat, a thick and unmistakable smell that I can taste. It inhabits the back of my throat and fills my sinuses. It is aromatic—both woody and floral. The smell reminds me of leaf litter on a forest floor and of the delicate, frilly undersides of mushrooms that grow in damp and shaded places.”
Enigmatic, yes. Legal, no—at least not in the United States, where the mere possession of ambergris is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as is the eating of whale meat itself. The taste remains mostly unknowable, an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the mysteries contained in our oceans at large.
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