1 August 2009

Ambergris: perhaps you'd rather not know

I combed the beaches of St. Francis Bay with my aunt one afternoon, now a lifetime ago. The weather was nasty; it had been raining for most of the day. We didn't mind, of course, since we knew that stormy weather brings the secrets of the sea ashore. That was the day my aunt found the giant eggcase of a paper nautilus, wedged between the rocks. The perfectly white, rippled object was the most gorgeous and delicate thing I had ever seen. I believe that was the first moment my impressionable young mind was filled with a sense of awe at the mysterious creatures that live in the liquid parts of the planet.

Some things that wash ashore are less obviously beautiful: broken jellyfish, reduced to lumps of snot; kelp fronds; dead gannets; ambergris. Ambergris? Yes, ambergris, the stuff of myth and poetry. Sounds romantic, but what exactly is it? Read on, although the story isn't for the squeamish. Sometimes, when something is so... biological in origin, it is perhaps better to live in ignorance.

The sperm whale is the largest predator to have ever existed. It dives to almost three kilometres below the surface of the ocean in order to do battle with giant and colossal squid in the inky depths. Although sperm whales also feed on fish, they are particularly fond of cuttlefish and squid. The problem with a diet high in cephalopods is that those sharp squid beaks are not exactly digestible. So in a process analogous to how a pearl is formed in an oyster through constant irritation, the whale encases these beaks and other indigestible matter in fatty secretions from its digestive system. These lumps are then easily excreted by the whale, without fear of internal nicks and scrapes.

Many people refer to ambergris as "whale vomit", although Hal Whitehead, a whale scientist of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is of the opinion that ambergris is more likely excreted via the faecal route. Not to worry; I won't go into much more detail concerning cetacean scatology. The interesting part of the ambergris story concerns what certain land living bipedal primates elect to do when they find the stuff washed up on the shores of the world. Tar-black and viscous, freshly expelled ambergris is strikingly foul-smelling. However, a counterintuitive thing happens when these lumps drift around in the ocean, exposed to sunlight, oxygen and salt water. As ambergris oxidizes, it begins to cure and harden. Well-aged ambergris has a waxy texture and is marbled grey in colour. In fact, the word ambergris is derived from the French ambre gris, meaning grey amber.

The smell of ambergris fortunately also changes with ageing. People try in vain to describe its depth and complexity, but fail. In the end, ambergris smells like ambergris and there's nothing quite like it. It is sweet, but dangerous. It has earthy notes, like tobacco, mulch or mossy pine forests combined with marine notes like sea spray and ocean breezes. But it also exudes something that belies its animal origin: musk, leather and something altogether mammalian. Like the flowers of jasmine, it retains a definite faecal undertone. The elaborate chemistry of ambergris consists of countless compounds, and is particularly abundant in steroid lipids. The most important of these is a molecule called ambrein, pictured here. Ambrein is oxidized during the ageing process, to form several related pungent compounds with names that make them sound rather like the heroines of forgotten Victorian bodice-rippers: ambrox, ambroxide, coronal, ambrinol... It's the combination of all these molecules together which is responsible for the complex fragrance of ambergris.

Gross as its origins are, ambergris has been a highly valued commodity for centuries. Reknowned in China before the year 1000, it was known as lung sien hiang, meaning "dragon’s spittle fragrance," because it was thought to be the saliva of sleeping sea dragons drooling into the ocean. During the Renaissance, small lumps of ambergris were moulded into decorative jewelry. It was ceremonially burned, like incense. It has since found particular use in the perfume industry as a fixative. It retains other fragrance ingredients, preventing their rapid evaporation and allowing the scent to linger on the skin. One classic method for preparing an ambergris extract used "1½ oz. of ambergris, 30 grains musk and 20 grains civet reduced to powder in loaf sugar," to which was added the juice of 1 unripe lime. This was poured into 3 pints of pure spirit alcohol and placed in a stoppered jar. The jar was incubated in "the constant heat of horse manure for 21 days," and the resultant clear, amber-coloured liquid decanted as Tincture of Ambergris. Perfumiers today rely on more scientific methods of extraction, or have switched to using synthetic alternatives. However, real ambergris is purportedly still an important component of such famous fragrances as Chanel No. 5 and Drakkar Noir.

The quality of ambergris depends on how long it has been floating around the ocean. Just like wine it mellows with age, and increases in value. Standard grade ambergris trades at almost $20 per gram. Considering that ambergris is sometimes found as giant lumps weighing hundreds of kilograms, finding ambergris on the beach can be quite lucrative. Since ambergris resembles a smelly, shapeless lump of sea detritus and not the delicate eggcase of a paper nautilus, most people ignore it witout realizing its value. Pieces of the fragrant flotsam are often sold for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to so-called "ambergris brokers". The trade in ambergris seems slightly shady: deals occur behind closed doors in hotel rooms in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and purchases are always made in cash. Just a few people control the world ambergris market, and I suppose they would like it to remain that way.

Through the ages, ambergris has not solely been used for perfume. Its animalistic allure had much further reach. In fact, it formed a vital part of the traditional pharmacopeia of many cultures around the world. It was lauded as a restorative balm. Arab doctors prescribed it as heart and brain medicine. Perhaps not surprisingly, the sensual scent of ambergris was highly in demand as an aphrodisiac. Legend has it that Madame du Barry washed herself with it to make herself irresistible to Louis XV of France. Oddly enough, ambergris has been - and in some cultures still is - used as a spice for food and wine. Beluga caviar? White truffles? How gauche. Surely shavings of first grade ambergris on your eggs benedict must be an unparalleled epicurean billionaire's treat! Personally, I'm sure I could never stomach it. If it disagreed with the whale, it is certain to disagree with me.

Picture credits: paper nautilus © mrpbps; sperm whale © Brian J. Skerry; ambergris © composite from various sources; Chanel No. 5 © Andy Warhol, 1985; vintage perfume bottles © meeralee.