Monday, 19 July 2010

A complete history of food, with ambergris

Bompas & Parr offered an entertaining take on the culinary past in their Complete History of Food. The involvement of Courvoisier probably did little to help the quality of my photos! The theme was more for fun than historical authenticity: representing the middle ages, a 'doctor' diagnosed our humours to prescribe one of four cocktails and canapes, served in a ship.

In 1853, the creators of Crystal Palace's prehistoric animals hosted a new year dinner inside the iguanadon; our main course was eaten in surroundings evoking that event. Up on the roof terrace, a contemporary 'flat and fizzy' champagne cocktail had still wine and effervescent grapes.

However, what most intrigued me was the Renaissance dessert of iris flower jelly with ambergris posset. Yes, ambergris, which I'd heard of as a perfume ingredient but not as a food. I also had only a vague idea of where it came from (fortunately for my appetite!).

In fact, ambergris is something that sperm whales excrete. Secreted into the intestine, much of it passes out of the whale's body in their faeces but larger lumps are possibly regurgitated. These pieces, up to 50kg each, can then be gathered up when they wash ashore. After aging, the substance develops a distinctive odour which accounts for its use both in perfume and as a food flavouring; Alexander Pope observed that
Praise is like ambergris; a little whiff of it, by snatches, is very agreeable; but when a man holds a whole lump of it to his nose, it is a stink and strikes you down.
King Charles II apparently ate it in his breakfast eggs and Richelieu liked ambergris pastilles, while Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick of its use in Turkish cooking. In fact, according to Larousse Gastronomique, the Chinese were the first to use it as a spice; in the middle ages it featured in ragouts and jams as well as desserts and, in the eighteenth century, hot chocolate. Historically, it was also believed to treat headaches, colds and epilepsy.

If you fancy adding some ambergris to your cooking, be warned that it's very expensive! However, if you feel both wealthy and adventurous, there's an 'interesting' recipe for ambergris pudding here.

1 comment:

Larousse Cuisine said...

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It’s an open website, where people can submit their recipes.
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Larousse Cuisine