You might love to smell perfumes but do you love to eat scents?
I can't get enough of floral cooking- rose water on rice pudding, violet ice cream, lavender iced cakes or in lemonade, orange blossom macaroons.
Eating ingredients you find in perfume is usually about florals though and they are certainly not for everyone. This weekend I had the 'luck' to try something completely different from the perfume world: Ambergris.
For those who perhaps aren't as interested in scent as cooking Ambergris is a legendary ingredient in the perfume world- apparently a beautiful, earthy musky smell that was loved and revered for it's medicinal qualities for hundreds of years.
Ambergris is a delicate sounding word but beauty in this case masks if not a secret then a surprise. For Ambergris quite literally describes a grey rock type substance found on beaches (named to be like grey amber) which is actually whale vomit. There are more details about what Ambergris is and it's journey in life it in this BBC article.
Ambergris is generally rare in perfume nowadays because of cost and increasing restrictions- which in the case of ambergris being taken or developed from slaughtered whales is clearly absolutely the right thing in my opinion. The question of naturally found Ambergris being used in perfume seems to me more difficult- I would have thought that as long as no creature is harmed this shouldn't be a problem- but I do understand that where demand outweighs supply people will bend rules and I consider harm to any creature to be too greater cost for any perfume or beauty product.
Ever well read and knowledgeable Helg who writes Perfume Shrine suggest some modern scents that are meant to have natural, as opposed to synthetic, ambergris in them here. If Eau De Merveilles does contain Ambergris and that salty cosy skin like scent derives from that ingredient then I can completely understand why ambergris has been treasured for so long- that perfume is quite beautiful and unlike anything else I have smelled for wanting to make you nuzzle the wearer or any clothes it's been on (gentleman take note, I think it could work very well on you- although I believe Terre De Hermes is meant to be the men's equivalent).
Now we come to the point of the post (finally I here you say)- how did I come to eat ambergris and how was it?
Well I came to eat it at Bompas and Parr's brilliant dinner/ art installation The Complete History of Food on Sunday (you can read a full review by food bloggers and London secret supper club dinner hosts Fernandez and Leluu here).
I had heard via reviews that there was an unusual ingredient in one of the courses and found out on the day it was whale vomit. During the meal though I couldn't work out what we had eaten which could contain in it and at no point were we told about it. Then we got to the dessert section of the meal: a delicious candied orange and iris flower jelly with an ambergris posset- I, knowing what ambergris was, knew this was the moment to be brave but my fellow diners wouldn't believe me and said that the delicious, extremely sweet creme brulee type custard couldn't possibly be the whale vomit we had heard the rumour about. No no they said it must have been a hoax, this is far too lovely and doesn't look like that would look.
Well I checked and it was ambergris and it's true that it doesn't look anything like you would imagine- it looks just like custard but on the spoon is slightly clearer and of a less runny consistency. In the mouth it tastes like an extremely rich burnt custard as I said and the texture is again like custard but perhaps firmer and slightly gelatinous. It was delicious I must say, although I'm not sure for either the cost or effort of finding it it was really that much better than a really good creme brulee and I could never quite get what I was eating out of my head for long enough to really enjoy it. It is fantastic to have tasted such a treasured ingredient though, even if it was a bit weird!