With a keen eye and enough patience, you can find almost anything washed up on a seashore. As the hundreds of headphone-clad metal detector enthusiasts around the world will attest, the possibility of buried beach treasure is a serious lure.
Very occasionally, scattered among the general detritus and debris discarded by the ocean, lucky beachcombers can stumble across something almost literally worth its weight in gold. These yellowy grey lumps may look nondescript, but there is more to them than meets the eye. Extremely valuable and coveted by a wealth of different industries, ambergris is perhaps earth’s ugliest rarity.
Given where it comes from, ambergris’ unappealing aspect is hardly a surprise. Deep beneath the ocean’s surface, colossal sperm whales do daily pitch-black battle against giant squid, in a conflict that has remained unchanged for millennia. While squid are almost entirely soft and fleshy, their mouths are made up of a hard, parrot-like beak. Sometimes, these beaks become lodged in a whale’s digestive tract, at which point the creature will produce a bile-like substance to attempt to dislodge them. As the beak and bile pass through the digestive tract, they combine and harden, creating a hard grey rock of ambergris. This is eventually excreted by the whale and left to float in the ocean, where it can remain for years before washing up on a distant beach.
Though this process may justifiably seem unappetising, ambergris has several hidden qualities that make it extremely valuable. For centuries, the substance was essential in the manufacture of high end perfumes, thanks to its unique smell and ability to help scent stick to skin. While its rarity ultimately led the perfume industry to explore other artificial replacements, ambergris is still used to this day whenever it can be found.
However, it is not just the perfume industry that came to obsess over whale poo. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, ambergris was an essential ingredient in many different recipes. In Britain in particular, this luxurious addition occupied a similar status to contemporary caviar. It’s taste and smell has been described variably as “intensely marine” and evocative of “leaf-litter on a forest floor”. Considering the olfactory offensiveness of most animal excretions, ambergris is clearly a special substance.
Recipe books from throughout the period provide an insight into ambergris’ culinary popularity. These sources tell us that there was a particular inclination towards its inclusion in desserts, with one bread pudding recipe calling for, “sweetened almonds, rose water, bread, cream, egg, sugar, nutmeg, bone marrow, muske and amber grease (sic).” Later dishes included possets, gelatins and medicinal liqueurs. In 2013, food historian and blogger Sarah Lohman even managed to recreate a 17th century recipe for ambergris ice cream. Its origins may be unsavoury, but the end results could clearly be delicious.
Though it has been largely replaced in the modern food industry by more easily sourced ingredients like vanilla, ambergris inspired dishes still crop up occasionally on modern menus. A notable example comes from famous Chicago cocktail bar, Billy Sunday. In 2013, they included an Old Fashioned on their menu made with a small quantity of ambergris, giving the drink an “intense aroma of concentrated ocean”, according to one reviewer.
Because of its rarity and historical status as a luxury, ambergris continues to be highly sought after. With a market value of about $20 per gram, stories of beach-goers who have stumbled across ugly looking fortunes continue to crop up. One couple in Australia managed to sell a 32-pound chunk of ambergris that they found outside their home for more than $300,000. So, next time you’re on the beach casting your eye over rotting seaweed and discarded water bottles, try to take an extra few seconds to appraise your surroundings.
You never know when you could strike whale poo.