Ambergris. Sounds whimsical, like an beautiful flower or a rare gemstone. In actuality, it’s whale poop. Well, sort of. Ambergris is a waxy solid substance that is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and protects the digestive track from sharp items ingested like squid beaks. Freshly regurgitated or excreted ambergris supposedly smells horrific (like most freshly discharged things do) but after years of floating around and aged by the sea it becomes something entirely different. It’s most traditional and popular use has been in perfumes, used like musk is. But what many people don’t know is that for centuries ambergris was also used in food.
I have Deana from Lost Past Remembered to thank for introducing me to ambergris and its culinary applications. After meeting, or ‘e-meeting’, and sharing our love for food and history, we got to talking about ambergris. She spoke so passionately about its magical properties in food that it got me excited to try something I normally would wrinkle my nose at. As you can imagine, ambergris is not easy to come by, and like anything that is difficult to find, it comes with a hefty price tag (almost $10,000 a pound!)
Luckily for me, Deana understood the foodie desire to break all palatal boundaries and was kind enough to send me a chip of the precious cargo. Never been so excited to open a package of animal excrement!
As any adventuresome eater knows, when encountering a new and exciting ingredient, you must relish it with not just your taste buds but with all your senses. Upon taking a hearty waft, I noted the briny yet musky scent. But really the smell is unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
Per Deana’s recommendation, I sprinkled a bit of ambergris into some warm port. The heat melts the wax releasing the aroma. Ambergris doesn’t provide a specific taste as much as it opens up a completely new experience in your consumption of the liquid or food you’ve added it to. After racking my brain for words to describe the experience, the best way I can sum it up is that it adds a depth of flavor to the port. It turned the port from an ordinary drink into something unique by giving it a “fleshy quality.” As unappetizing as “fleshy quality” sounds, the experience was not distasteful.
In sum: Ambergris to liquids is much like 3D to movies; it gives new meaning to the otherwise familiar.