Ambergris: The Chocolate Additive Worth Its Weight in Gold
Last month, we considered the role of chocolate as a ration on whaling ships, but that is not, in fact, the only chocolate connection to be made between whales, the whaling industry, chocolate, and Moby-Dick! Sperm whales actually produce an unctuous, fragrant excretion called ambergris that has historically been added to chocolate. In chapters 91 and 92 of Moby-Dick, Ishmael describes how Stubb, second mate of the Pequod, tricks another whaling ship into abandoning a sperm whale corpse they had found at sea. Stubb hopes that the corpse will contain ambergris, and his suspicion is proven correct – though Ahab gives him little time to collect the precious substance. But what exactly is ambergris? And why would it be added to chocolate?
Ambergris is a waxy substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales, presumably to relieve the irritation of sharp squid beaks which they are unable to digest. The build-up of ambergris will then be periodically expelled from the whale’s body. Up until fairly recently, it was believed that whales vomited up the ambergris, but today the argument leans towards the other end of the whale, if you catch my meaning. The initial, dung-like smell of fresh ambergris also lends credence to that “back end” argument, but, after years of drifting on the open sea in the salt and sun, the ambergris develops a much more complex and desirable odor. In fact, the major use for ambergris, both today and historically, is as a fixative in perfumes – it develops and complicates the other layers of scent in the fragrance, while also helping them adhere to the skin. Therefore, unlike Stubb acquiring relatively fresh ambergris from a whale carcass, most whaling captains would instead keep an eye out for aged ambergris floating in the water. Today, however, there are some questions about the legality of the possession and use of ambergris, at least in the United States. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 prohibits animal products sourced from endangered species; however, some would argue that ambergris does not qualify for this ban since it is a waste product. In fact, most ambergris is usually found washed ashore by beachcombers, sometimes resulting in a surprising payday for a lucky vacationer. A sizable market for ambergris exists overseas, such as in Italy and France, where the rare substance is highly sought after, but, overall, the ambergris trade remains a mysterious affair.
Though primarily associated with perfume today, historically, chocolate was also highly sought after by chefs. In the colonial period, many of the finest and most luxurious chocolate recipes called for ambergris. (A sample recipe for chocolat ambré can be found here.) In the 1800s, there are records of its use as a thickener in drinking chocolate, resulting in a similar effect as adding milk. In fact, the rise of milk chocolate in the late nineteenth-century essentially replaced the use of ambergris as an additive. Personally, I’m okay with milk chocolate over whale poop chcocolate, but if you ever have the chance to try it, do let me know how it tastes!