by Maria Koropecky, Homespunspa owner
A couple of nights ago, I was watching Chef Heston Blumenthal’s Heston’s Christmas Feast and he wanted to make the most epic holiday banquet of all time. He made his first course, a hot chocolate, with ambergris, an ingredient I had never heard of before. First, I loved the oxymoronic name of joining yellow and grey together in one word. And then I was intrigued by ambergris’ paradoxical status of being highly coveted on the one hand and coming from humble beginnings (ahem) on the other hand. The more I learned, the more I thought it would make a lovely, albeit over-the-top, home spa ingredient and gift, especially during the festive holiday season.
Ambergris is a rare and valuable treasure from the sea. Surprisingly, it comes from the bellies of Sperm Whales. Like many people, Chef Heston referred to ambergris as “whale vomit” but that’s not entirely accurate. Scientists think the whales produce fatty, waxy ambergris to coat sharp objects like squid beaks, to help them pass through the whale’s digestive system. Lumps and clumps of varying shapes and sizes, weighing 100 pounds or more, are the result.
At first, the lumps smell like low tide on a bad day. However, once the ambergris nuggets bob in the ocean for a few years and age and oxidize in the hot sun and salt water, they develop a sweet, earthy aroma, reminiscent of tobacco or musk.
Ambergris has been prized since the days of yore for its pungent flavour and fragrance. Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense and the ancient Chinese called the substance “dragon’s spittle fragrance.” In Europe, between the years 1348 and 1350, people carried ambergris with them because they believed it would keep them from catching the plague. Also during the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris to treat headaches and colds. People from the Middle East have historically added ambergris powder to their food for an extra kick. It is also known as an aphrodisiac.
Home Spa Activity
Have you ever thought about scavenging for ambergris on the beach? The next time you go on a beach vacation to the Bahamas, the East Indies, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, China, Japan, India or Madagascar, why not keep your eyes peeled for ambergris? It will either be sitting on the sand among the pebbles or floating on the water like a cork. You might hit the jackpot, a nugget of gold that you may have overlooked before and the value could be worth thousands of dollars depending on its age. If nothing else, you’ll get to walk along the lovely beach and relax and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine and the salty sea. But if you do score, write me and tell me about it.
The next time you stumble upon some ambergris in your travels, consider infusing it in your home spa. It melts at 62 degrees Celsius and turns into a yellow, resinous sap which is a good aroma enhancer and fixative in your perfume. Just a drop will do ya.
Makes a great Christmas gift
A lump of ambergris, although not all that visually appealing to most, would also make a lovely Christmas present. It could be worth more than a diamond ring but your sweetheart won’t know what to say. “Whale vomit? You gave me whale vomit?” “No, honey, I gave you ambergris.” “Oh, well, that’s different.”
But if you don’t have immediate access to some ambergris, try giving a bottle of the classic Chanel No. 5 perfume instead. That might work just as well.