Monday, December 18, 2006
We interrupt our usual geopolitics and partisan sturm und drang to bring you the most valuable "Technicolor yawn" in the world: ambergris, which is the polite term for putrified whale vomit.
Ambergris begins as a waxlike substance secreted in the intestines of some sperm whales, perhaps to protect the whale from the hard, indigestible “beaks” of giant squid it feeds upon. The whales expel the blobs, dark and foul-smelling, to float the ocean. After much seasoning by waves, wind, salt and sun, they may wash up as solid, fragrant chunks.
Unfortunately, sperm whales are protected as endangered, which means that it is illegal to sell even their old vomit:
After researching ambergris on the Internet, Ms. Ferreira’s neighbor, Joe Luiksic, advised, “Put it on eBay.” But endangered species legislation has made buying or selling the stuff illegal since the 1970s; a couple who found a large lump of ambergris valued at almost $300,000 on an Australian beach in January has had legal problems selling it.
When it is legal to buy it, average ambergris goes for about $10 per gram, which means that it is worth around half its weight in gold. This is not surprising, because it has all sorts of uses:
Ambergris has been a valued commodity for centuries, used in perfume because of its strangely alluring aroma as well as its ability to retain other fine-fragrance ingredients and “fix” a scent so it does not evaporate quickly. Its name is derived from the French “ambre gris,” or gray amber. During the Renaissance, ambergris was molded, dried, decorated and worn as jewelry. It has been an aphrodisiac, a restorative balm, and a spice for food and wine. Arabs used it as heart and brain medicine. The Chinese called it lung sien hiang, or “dragon’s spittle fragrance.” It has been the object of high-seas treachery and caused countries to enact maritime possession laws and laws banning whale hunting. Madame du Barry supposedly washed herself with it to make herself irresistible to Louis XV.
In “Paradise Regained,” Milton describes Satan tempting Christ with meat pastries steamed in ambergris. In “Moby-Dick,” Melville called it the “essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.”
I admit, I did not know that.
Selling it would have been the least of their worries. Try bringing it back home on the plane in your carry on luggage. Isn't this just another waxy substance that cannot exceed 3 oz. and must be in a 1 quart ziplock bag for transport?
I will admit to actually being aware of this particular product.
The source of my knowledge is an unlikely one... as a young lad (let's say, of around 7 or 8 years old), I devoured all of the Encyclopedia Brown books (NB for literalists out there, I read them... didn't actually eat them). One of the cases in one of the books involved ambergris.
I don't remember all of the cases from all of the books, nor do I remember the details of that particular case. However, a story involving valuable whale puke really sticks with a 7-8 year old boy.
I knew a drill instructor at one time who claimed that it was whale excreta, the sweetest, most aromatic substance in the world that quickly rises to the top. His charges, however, were likened to the other component, which sinks to the bottom of the sea. He claimed that the name for that latter substance was "dreck".