Ambergris: The Whale Waste Product Found In Food For Royalty
Image Credit: Charles II loved ambergris with his breakfast eggs

THE untimely death of King Charles II of England in February 1685 had triggered a flurry of speculation and whispers. After all, regicide is the stuff of history books — and more immediately, the gallows. The palace towers swirled with rumours of his favourite breakfast having a part to play in his sudden stroke, suggesting that his beloved eggs, infused with the enigmatic ingredient known as ambergris, may have released poison that killed the unsuspecting monarch. 

Although the monarch likely preferred his eggs scrambled, a popular culinary trend of the era, the addition of ambergris left historians pondering over the taste and its impact on the dish. Ambergris, a substance derived from the digestive systems of sperm whales, has long captivated the human imagination, specifically, from the 16th century in England. With the emergence of natural history as a distinct discipline, it marked a new era for the study of animals. Whales, in particular, were a topic of interest among early modern European natural historians and physicians, and they were often discussed in relation to the production of ambergris, a perfumed substance found on beaches. 

This unique ingredient had baffled scientific minds about its origin for centuries. Some believed it was the sperm of whales, others thought it was their vomit or excrement. The Chinese referred to it as "dragon's spittle fragrance," conjuring up mythical origins for this peculiar substance. Its complex aroma, often described as a combination of musk, tobacco, and the sea, has traditionally been used in the fragrance industry. Until recently, its ability to stabilise scents, granting longevity to any fragrance it touched, was cherished in French perfumery. Even Marie Antoinette purportedly wore a scent infused with ambergris, and some historians argue that the original formula for Chanel No. 5 included this precious ingredient.

Beyond its olfactory contributions, ambergris also enjoyed demand for its medicinal qualities. As per the accounts of Ibn Hawqal, a Muslim trader from the 10th century, ambergris was used by the Turks to address male impotence. During the Middle Ages, ambergris was heavily featured in prevalent medicinal practices. Europeans turned to this enigmatic substance to alleviate a variety of ailments, ranging from headaches to colds and epilepsy. Its perceived therapeutic properties lent it a significant place in the pharmacopoeias of the time, where it was sought after as a remedy for diverse ailments. In fact, amid the Black Plague in Europe, it was widely believed that carrying a sphere of ambergris could serve as a safeguard against the deadly disease. This belief originated from the idea that the pleasant aroma emanating from the ambergris concealed the noxious odours thought to be responsible for the transmission of the plague.

Sure, ambergris also found its place in the culinary world, but its prevalence in cooking pales in comparison to its extensive use in perfume-making. Mediaeval Arab and Indian cuisines embraced this ingredient, influenced by the courtly cuisine of early-mediaeval Persia. These ancient culinary traditions introduced a range of unexpected fragrances into their dishes, such as musk, civet, roses, orange blossoms, aloe, sandalwoods, and even camphor. An example can be found in a 15th century manuscript called The Ni'matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu, which presents a recipe involving boiling and drying meat, marinating it with a blend of saffron, white ambergris, and rosewater, before adding rice, ginger, onions, and salt. Such dishes were served with delectable gravies. 

While the prevalence of ambergris in mediaeval European cuisine is a subject of debate, it is likely that it made its way into the kitchens of the privileged class, which avidly absorbed various influences from Arab culinary practices. Renaissance Italian court cooks were known to incorporate ambergris into their biscotti and other sweet treats, often paired with musk. By the seventeenth century, the French, too, had adopted its use. In François Pierre de La Varenne's Traité de Confitures (1650), ambergris, typically combined with musk, infused an assortment of candied fruits, sugar-paste pastilles, pralines, marzipans, wines, lemonades, and even a preparation called "crème, autre façon," akin to our beloved crème anglaise. La Varenne's directions for preparing both musk and ambergris for recipes involved grinding the ingredients with powdered sugar and storing the mixture for future use. 

Over time, ambergris gained entry into English cuisine via Italian and French influences, with their culinary practices greatly admired and imitated in early-modern England. According to the accounts of 18th century sources, ambergris was considered the epitome of Tudor court circles' haut-gout, dating back to the early 1500s. While this claim may hold some truth, the mention of ambergris in English cookbooks, both printed and manuscript, from the sixteenth century remains sparse. It was not until the Restoration period in 1660 that cookbooks suddenly came alive with the fragrant essence. Renowned culinary figures such as Robert May in The Accomplisht Cook (1660, 1665) and Hannah Woolley in Queen-like Closet (1672) present numerous recipes featuring ambergris. Woolley's affinity for the ingredient is particularly noteworthy as she catered not only to the wealthy but also to the upper-middle class. This suggests that ambergris may not have been as scarce and exorbitant in 17th century England as one might assume.

Both May and Woolley presented a range of ambergris recipes that included medicinal beverages. Woolley's focus lay in creating marzipans, elaborate preserved-fruit concoctions, and sugar candies, all scented with ambergris. On the other hand, May predominantly incorporated ambergris into dishes featuring eggs, cream, or a combination of both. From poached eggs in syrup to creamy scrambled eggs on toast, indulgent baked puddings, apple-infused codling cream, snow cream, cheesecakes, and the mildly alcoholic posset, Manuscript cookbooks of the time follow a similar culinary path to May's, showcasing rich and custardy baked puddings made from bread and/or ground almonds. These sumptuous desserts were often adorned with dried or preserved fruits, slices of apples, or cooked artichoke bottoms, complemented by generous amounts of beef marrow or butter, luscious cream, and abundant eggs. A typical recipe of this era might also include "green potatoes whole," which, based on historical context, could possibly refer to cream-coloured sweet potatoes harvested when tiny and then candied and tinted green to resemble candied citron.

So popular was the ingredient that even the first recorded recipe for ice cream mentions the use of ambergris. Dating back to the 1660s, this sweet concoction, documented by the English noblewoman Lady Anne Fanshawe, was a delightful blend of cream, sugar, orange flower water, and of course, ambergris. This special ingredient played a crucial role in both freezing the cream and imparting a unique flavour to it. Fanshawe substituted the salt with chunks of ambergris, harnessing its extraordinary properties to achieve the desired freezing temperature. However, as the culinary landscape evolved, the allure of perfumed food gradually waned, making way for familiar flavours such as the ever-popular vanilla. 

While modern cooking no longer incorporates ambergris in preparations, a 2013 report stated a Sicilian chocolatier crafted one of the world’s most extravagant chocolates with ambergris and deer musk, drawing inspiration from a 1746 recipe from the esteemed Grimaldi family of chocolate artisans.