Ambergris and Musk: Exotic scents of a cuisine

The opulence and wealth of the Court of Shadiabad is clearly shown through the exotic scents added to its food. Scented food is a huge part of the cuisine of the time. “Scented foods of all kinds” is a common ingredient of many of the dishes in the manuscript, but two of the scents truly stand out.

Ambergris is a substance that most of us have never heard of. True ambergris is a bile secretion made in the intestines of the sperm whale. The ambergris accumulated in the digestive system of the sperm whale and when it was too large to excrete through more direct methods, the whale vomited it. The lumps of ambergris washed up on beaches and was collected. Raw ambergris is harsh and fecal smelling, but ambergris aged by oxidation and ocean water is “at once sweet, earthy, marine, and animalic”. True ambergris was extremely sought after as a perfume throughout history, but the hunting of sperm whales in the last few centuries has reduced sperm whales to dangerously low numbers. Since there is no way to determine whether ambergris comes from collected vomitus or harvested directly from the body of a killed whale, ambergris is illegal in most countries now.

Woodcut from Hortus Sanitatis, 1490

Musk is another scent listed used with abandon in the Nimatnama. Musk is used as a scent in food and as a cosmetic scent, and seems to have been used with some frequency. “Rub musk into smelly armpits” is a stern instruction, and musk is added to many foods for scent and most of the cosmetic and medicinal preparations, as well as most of the paan recipes. Musk is a wax made by the glands of the male Siberian musk deer. The name “musk” comes from the Sanskrit word for “testicle” and many sources name India as where all musk perfumes came from. The deer is killed and the gland removed to extract the musk, and ethical concerns have recently outlawed all musk production except for a small amount produced for Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I have not used either of these true scents in my feast.  This affects the end authenticity to an unfortunate degree. I do have a small amount of sugar scented with synthetic musk I received as a gift from Magistra Rosemounde of Mercia, which will be used as a garnish on the Mahshur Khir.

There is a scent available which is considered the closest plant-based substitute for animal scents such as musk and ambergris. Labdanum is a resin exuded by a Mediterranean species of the rockrose and hand-collected, originally from the beards of the goats which fed on the shrubs. Labdanum has a fascinating history, this page selling labdanum from Greece has the most complete information I have found.

This scent will not be included in feast. I only recently learned of this substitute and don’t have time to experiment with its flavor or test what kind of allergic reactions it will provoke. I truly hope to acquire some soon and have a chance to play with it!

2 comments

  1. No clue how old this article is, but I just came across it in googling and had to share a story. I once did an English feast in the Shire of Coppertree, Kingdom of AEthelmearc at the end of which I served an Elizabethan dessert that amounted to bread pudding with applesauce. A few years earlier, I had acquired a small piece of ambergris at great expense from a merchant at Pennsic, complete with a certificate proving that it had washed up on a beach somewhere. I had a jeweler friend carefully break a bit off and powder it for me. I added it to the dessert. The diners were mystified. You could hear people in the hall mumbling things like “WHAT is that flavor?” They loved it. Then, I told the servers to pass word to the tables just what it was they were tasting. Soon, fully half the diners had pushed their plates away and didn’t finish them! I was expecting them to recognize just what a rare and wonderful culinary experience they were being given for free. Instead, they were probably imagining whale innards. Philistines. Still, there were enough people who did enjoy it that it felt worthwhile. The moral, though? Beware modern sensibilities. They can be completely irrational.

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