What’s Ambergris?

FR: Ambre gris GER: Am bra (graue)

IT: Ambra grigia SP: Ambar gris

This substance is called ‘grey amber’ because like amber it is found washed up on beaches and was once thought to be of similar vegetable origin. It is enormously valuable, bringing a small fortune to any beachcomber lucky enough to find some.

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Ambergris is in fact not vegetable, but semi-digested squid from the intestines of sick sperm whales (cachalot). Whalers find it sometimes when they cut up their catch. It is variable in appearance but is generally grey, black or marbled, fatty and putty-like. It sounds horrid but has a sweet earthy smell and later develops a whiff of violets. It also has a ‘musky note’ of squid and is used in perfumery.

Ambergris was a common flavouring in kitchens of the wealthy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was highly regarded as a restorative (often mixed with chocolate). It is occasionally mentioned in more recent recipes for ratafias. Some authorities say it is still used in Eastern cookery, but I have not come across this myself. I doubt whether many people will want to try it, now that they know its origin, but it dissolves in alcohol and may be bought as an essence.

Powdered amber was also used in ancient cooking. This of course is fossilized resin.

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