Wednesday 21 July 2010

Eating Perfume

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!


Ines said...

:D Interesting. I don't think I'd be able to forget what I was eating also. I mean, the words used to describe what it is make it a bit unpalatable.

Mystica said...

Whale vomit - well it does make you hesitate but ambergris! well that wont make you hesitate will it?

Vanessa said...

Goodness me - that is the most avant-garde food dish I have heard of since my brother fashioned a computer circuit board out of dyed strands of spaghetti.

Whatever next - apple crumble with rhino phlegm? Hats off to you for being so brave.

Jayne said...

Whale vomit that looks like custard? *crinkles nose slightly* I'd probably have to not know that bit in order to eat it! And then I would have obviously missed out. I am definitely impressed with your spirit of culinary adventure!

eartha said...

i went to the Complete History of Food, and knowingly consumed the posset too. It was surprisingly *delicious*. (I'd had also had a lot of cognac by that point but thats another matter!)

I've seen recipes online for ambergris and chocolate concoctions from the 1600s that I have yet to out. But as soon as I find a source for ambergris I will!

Btw, I was asking one of the Jellymongers (I have no idea which one is Bompas and which one is Parr, but it was the blond one with the sexy voice) and the iris in the jelly was a synthetic molecule from a fragrance house. I'm not sure if the ambergris was from the belly of a whale or a testtube.

But none the less it was great evening of sensory theatre and who can argue with four cocktails and an iguana.

ScentScelf said...

Holy cow.

You render my strong ambivalence about foie gras nearly mute.

On the other hand, I eat eggs on a regular basis. Which, granted, does not reach the levels of Flittersniffer's rhino phlegm suggestion...but...there are some odd things to be found in the human diet.

I wonder if I would have greater issue with a chocolate covered insect?

Ambergris is fascinating. Thanks so much -- really! -- for sharing your experience. Vicarious is definitely a useful option. :)

TheOnlineStylist said...

Ooh wish I wasn't eating my lunch whilst reading that! I used to love Parma Violet sweets and still go mad for rose flavour Turkish Delight.. yummy! x

Rose said...

Hi Jayne- thanks, I surprised myself, I think the booze helped if I'm honest

Joven- I will have a look

Hi eartha- that's so interesting about the iris- perhaps that'a right about the ambergris too- I would rather a test tube I think!

Hi Scent scelf- hope Paris is amazing! Ambergris is fascinating if just for reminding you of the sheer size of the natural world, I wonder what we don't yet know. I also wonder who first worked out the ambergris rocks could be used to get scent or something to eat! it wouldn't be the first thing that would occur to me when I saw a rock!

Hi Fortynotout- we have the same taste in sweets! I still love parma violets, you can get them in a few places including the sweet shop on Colombia Road. I think flower flavours are having a bit of a comeback which is all good with me!

Rose said...

Hi Ines- I didn't finish, but I had to dare myself to try!

Hi Mystica- it does make you hesitate honestly even with the knowledge of the smell!

Hi Flittersniffer- your brother sounds like quite the creative! that must have been so much work! thanks- I try!

Deana Sidney said...

I have been cooking with ambergris ( my specialty is historical recipes) Ambergris itself is like gray pumice. If you saw no peppery flecks in your custard then it was a tincture of some kind. When it is used in cooking, it is grated. Only a small amount is used, most famously in a staggeringly good hot chocolate with jasmine. The recipe is on my blog as well as a source for ambergris. It doesn't really taste of anything, save wax.. you taste the smell which is what makes it so fabulous.

Rose said...

Hi Lostpastremembered- thanks so much for your comment- historical recipes sound fascinating. IDo you have any recipes you could share? Or flower recipes? I'm quite obsessed with those and have a lovely book called the scented kitchen but would like more.

human pheromones said...

How would you know if the fragrances has a great scent and if it is really fit on you? I was looking for the great perfume that can make a longest smell. Anyway,will certainly visit your site more often now.