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Ambergris – The Truffle Of The Ocean

by Nicholas Atgemis |

Have you ever had a lover who wore cheap perfume or the wrong perfume and its lingering remnants on your linen made it almost impossible for you to resume relations? I have.

Have you ever had a perfume that was so intoxicating that you could sniff the back of her neck for hours and wish you could never leave that moment, content, spent, wanting to be nowhere else but right there? I have.

That perfume she wore, it was Aventus. And for years I stockpiled it and used it everywhere so I could no longer associate it with just her and I could attach it to other memories. It was more of a masculine scent I believe, as they ventured into making one for him, one for her. But she wore the male version. Maybe that had something to do with it, like when a woman wears her boyfriend’s work shirt as a shirt dress the next morning, something that was more common in the 80’s I believe.

It was a few weeks back as I was watching a perfume blogger’s YouTube channel that I was finally able to work out that lingering part of Aventus that made it so irresistible. Long after the citrus notes were gone and even when they were on, there was this background scent, something I could never quite put my finger on, which made it always so inimitable to my mind. It was, according to the blogger, the fact that they were using real ambergris.

I remember in the Creed store one afternoon when the sales assistant was selling me their magnum bottle, she said “this is a good batch, a good year, it’s hard to get the ingredients each year you see.” I have no doubt in my mind that she was referring to the ambergris specifically. The rest of it, the citrus, the ylang ylang etc, I haven’t had any issue finding 101 versions of it all around the world.

So, what does someone do when they have a lockdown going on in Sydney and the wedding market has all but vanished again? That’s right, they don’t curb their expenses and shutter the doors, instead, this particular dim wit goes out and starts accumulating every different essential oil out there so he can start making perfumes in his office.

In truth, I started my foray before the lockdown. It was Dimitri from Goldfield & Banks coming in to show me his range of Australian based perfumes that started my odyssey. He had explained some of the unique and wonderful essential oils that are derived from Australia that are used in the most luxurious scents in today’s perfume market.

The parcels started trickling in from Amazon, Ebay, overseas websites and local distributors of essential oils and absolutes and with each passing day I was able to isolate those smells that I had come to love in my favourite perfumes and with plenty of time up my sleeve it was no different to learning how to cook a brand-new dish, like my hand-made mandelli di seta pesto pasta I wrote about in lockdown 1.0 last year.

Now the ambergris arrives. A tiny white tube filled with an oil of white ambergris that has been sitting for three years in a cupboard by a man who specialises in Australian ambergris. I mix it into some perfumer’s ethanol and voila, I have finally found that thing which eluded me for so long, the final kicker that made Aventus the rock star that it is. It is the black truffle of perfume, that ingredient which brings things together, that substance that makes the sum greater than the parts. And not surprisingly, it is often referred to as floating gold.

But what is ambergris? And why do humans respond to it so well?

In Moby Dick the author Herman Melville devotes a whole chapter to ambergris to discuss its merits, but it is tongue in cheek remark that appeals to my sense of humour when he writes that if only fine ladies and gentlemen knew that what they regaled had started its life in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.

It’s true. But it’s still not exactly known what causes the ambergris to form in the intestines of the sperm whale, and it doesn’t occur in all sperm whales.

The modern theory is that ambergris is formed as a white sludge like substance in the bile ducts of the sperm whale’s intestines to coat the beaks and pens of giant squid which cannot be digested but need to be pushed out as faecal matter. But another theory I have been told is that the peaks and pens pierce the lining of the stomach, and the whale heals those internal wounds by producing ambergris as a putty which then forms as a scab and eventually gets passed through the rectum.

However, all of it is still very much a grey area. Some believe, for example, that the largest bits of ambergris that form are so large they can’t pass through the rectum, so the sperm whale vomits it out the front. What they do know is that some of it can get so large that it ruptures the rectumand kills the sperm whale in passing it.

Harvesting the ambergris is usually done in two ways; either a dead sperm whale is cut open and the ambergris pulled out (which is not the best way as this tends to be black ambergris which is not as sought after) or else the ambergris floats to the surface (hence floating gold) and it bobs around for a good period of time undergoing what is known as ‘photodegradation’ and in doing so it gathers up the notes that it is famed for; namely - marine, animalic, sweet, earthy, musky. The best stuff, I am told, has been bobbing around for 20 years at sea until it washes up on the beach. And like truffles, they often use dogs to help find it.

Ambergris is found in many locations but most of the commercial volume is harvested from the Caribbean whilst other locations include Scotland, Madagascar (also a wonderful source for ylang ylang and vanilla), China, Japan, India, New Zealand and Australia. Of course, you will find it practically anywhere a whale might swim past and the currents that may pick it up and to those shores it might carry it to. In fact, this year in February a group of fishermen sold a 120kg piece of black ambergris they retrieved from the carcass of a sperm whale off the coast of Yemen. They sold it to a merchant in the UAE for 1.5 million USD and totally improved the riches of the entire village. Floating gold indeed.

I will tell you this – I have come to like ambergris on its own - diluted to 3% in alcohol – but it’s not my favourite. It reminds me of my grandmother or grandmothers in general, perhaps even those old people who come to the door and open it and all that musk from their home hits you and you can’t wait to leave. That’s the worst version of it of course. And that might sound rather off putting. But then, truffle for me can be off putting is its on its own. I need the pasta, I need the butter, I need the olive oil. You see, for me, ambergris is like that base you use in cooking a sauce, it’s your butter or cream, it is the thing which lifts the entire dish and brings it all together. I love scrambled eggs for example, but scrambled eggs with some cream and butter on the toast with some parmesan cheese – are you with me?

Speaking of which, that brings me to King Charles II of England circa mid 1600’s. His favourite dish was eggs with shaved ambergris. I will try this before I die I’m sure. 

And it doesn’t end there for ambergris in food. The Turks have used it in Turkish coffee and the Europeans have used it in hot chocolate. It’s also been used in rum liqueurs along with things like orange peels, almonds and cloves. In Ancient Egypt they burned it as incense, whilst in modern day Egypt they use it to scent cigarettes.

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It has been used for a remedy for colds, headaches and epilepsy, has been carried around as a ball to help stave off the Black Death during plagues whilst the Chinese consider it an aphrodisiac and refer to it as ‘dragon’s spittle fragrance’.

In its use in perfume, that is a whole other kettle of whale. At the height of whale hunting approximately 50,000 sperm whales were killed each year which made ambergris more readily available in perfume.

According to one website Queen Victoria’s favourite perfume was called Fleurs De Bulgares which featured Bulgarian Roses, Bergamot, Musk and you guessed it, Ambergris.

I could wax lyrical all day about what it does to perfume but mostly I will reduce it to this – it is a top, mid and base note. It is a fixer, meaning it helps every other essential oil or odour in the perfume help stay on the skin and it carries it for longer. It also helps project the perfume too. Really, if I had to break it down into a food analogy: it’s like black truffle, butter and cream. You can’t really go wrong with it; you just can’t go too long with it.

In the end, most human beings will never get the opportunity to smell ambergris on its own. It is so highly sought after and there were so many implications for trading it that the market for it is usually sewn up by the big perfume houses. In recent years it has come back into fashion, but because it’s so expensive, most of the new fragrances us a synthetic chemical called Ambroxin which is intended to be a replacement for true ambergris.

Anyway, I just felt the need to share this with you all, and I hope it helps you on your own journey into scents. The next two notes I wish to write about will be vanilla and ylang ylang, so stay tuned.

 

Sperm Whale Ambergris

Sperm whales were hunted to near extinction

white ambergris

A piece of white ambergris that has been floating in the sea for many years in order to achieve this colouration.

Fleur De Bulgares By Creed
Queen Victoria's favourite scent featured ambergris

King Charles II Ambergris And Eggs
King Charles II liked eggs with shaved ambergr

 

Over 100kg piece of black ambergris retrieved from a sperm whale carcass off the coast of Yemen