Ambergris

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

ambergris an intestinal secretion of the cachalot or sperm whale, sometimes found in the animal itself but more often floating on the sea or washed up on the beach, used to have a minor culinary role. It is a waxy solid, occurring in lumps which weigh anything from a few ounces to 90 kg (200 lb). Ambergris was familiar from medieval Arab medicine and cookery. The French saw a resemblance between it and true amber and, since its normal colour is ashy grey, called it ambre gris. From this name are derived the English ambergris and variants thereof such as ambergrease. Like musk, it was used in conjunction with other aromatics, such as cardamom, to perfume foods, mostly confectionery. The practice, not uncommon in the 17th century, seems to have died out in Britain in the 18th century. Hannah Glasse (1747) used it in only one of her 900 recipes, and that (for Icing a Great Cake Another Way) came from an earlier book. It may be that its fall from grace as a flavouring (together with musk and civet) is linked to its passing as a body perfume in favour of more floral scents (Corbin, 1986).