Forgotten Ingredients: Silphium and Odd Beasts & Birds
Silphium and Odd Beasts & Birds
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at ingredients from history that have either become extinct or have moved from being regular staples in the kitchens of the world to now being forgotten or difficult to find. From silphium, to peacocks, to hippos, to ambergris, join us on our journey through history as we rediscover what our forebears ate.
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EAT MY GLOBE
SILPHIUM & ODD BEASTS AND BIRDS
Did you hear about the time that the ostrich and the giraffe had a race?
It was neck and neck all the way.
Neck and neck. You see, ‘cause. . .
Do you like that one?
Yes, I did.
It was as close. . .
. . . as we’re ever gonna get to it.
As close as we’re ever gonna get. I don’t use my good jokes for help.
Ok, what are we doing?
Hi everybody. I’m Simon Majumdar, and welcome to another episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s special episode, I want to give a shout out to one of our supporters on Patreon, David H. So, David sent me an e-mail with some suggestions for new episodes, and today’s subject is taken from one of those suggestions. So, thank you, David, and thank you to everyone who supports us on Patreon. We really do appreciate it here at Eat My Globe HQ.
So, what was David’s suggestion? Well, his idea was for me to go and research some of those ingredients that have either become extinct or have moved from being a regular staple in the kitchens of the world to something that is now forgotten, and often almost impossible to find if you did want to recreate a dish from the past. I have to say that I thought it was a rather splendid idea and have spent far too long researching ideas for ingredients before I came up with the two you’ll hear about in this episode.
So well done, David. And, if anyone else has any great ideas for future episodes of Eat My Globe, please do send them to us. See, we do listen.
Right. So, where shall we start?
First of all, let’s talk about one of the mythical lost herbs of the ancient world, Silphium.
Now, before I go on, I want to acknowledge a terrific article by Zaria Gorvett, “The Mystery of the Lost Herb,” which appeared on the BBC website in 2017. It has proved to be an excellent starting point for my own research.
So, what was silphium?
Silphium was a wild herb or weed that we now believe resembles something similar to fennel. It was a plant that was only grown successfully in a narrow bank of land – about 125 miles by 35 miles – in an area called Cyrenaica. This was a colony that had been founded by the ancient Greeks. Today, you would find the ancient capital of Cyrene in the town of Shaḥḥāt, in the country of what is now Libya, in North Africa.
The plant, according to Pliny the Elder, began to grow in this area around 617 BCE after, what he described as
“a shower as black as pitch.”
After the storm, the sodden ground found itself suitable for growing this precious plant. Apparently, Cyrenaica received around 34 inches of rain per year. Wow.
Silphium grew abundantly on the hills and meadows. However, by the 2nd century BCE, it became extinct. Arguably, the first recorded plant to do so.
Apparently, silphium was not sold in the markets of Cyrenaica but exported to other lands. Now, we’re not sure why it was not sold locally. Perhaps, it may well be that it was more valuable to sell abroad than to be sold for lower prices closer to home. I’ve actually heard this argument recently about the great seafood caught off the coast of Scotland, which is worth far more when being sold in other countries than at home. We simply can’t be sure. But the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans tried to grow it in other regions, but they were unsuccessful in cultivating this wild flower.
The plant itself had many uses, both culinary and medicinal.
For the people of Cyrene, the plant – with its thick roots, edible stalks and leaves, and pungent sap that could be extracted – was so valuable, it became their main source of wealth. So much so that Cyrene would put images of the plant on its coins. Excavated coins dating from the 6th century BCE show both the stalks of the Silphium, and its heart shaped seeds. One coin even featured a Cyrenian woman sitting by a plant, with one hand touching the silphium, while the other touching her reproductive area. As we shall see later, her pose represented one of the key reasons silphium became so sought after.
From a culinary point of view, according to Pliny the Elder, the silphium plant, and its sap, known as “Laser,” became hugely popular. The stalks were roasted or boiled. Imagine as one might do with the stalks of chard. The leaves, with which the seeds were plentiful, were fed to cattle. Apparently, silphium first acts as a purgative for the cattle, but later, the plant allows them to fatten up and become even more fully flavored when cooked.
In addition, the ancient Greeks used silphium to help cook a fish called “bodbon.”
Silphium was also to make appearances in plays where its suitability for use in the culinary arts was lauded. For example, in the works of Aristophanes, such as “The Birds,” which was first staged in 414 BCE, the birds in question are sold to be cooked with cheese, oil, vinegar and, our good friend, silphium.
The ancient Egyptians may also have used silphium as a sealant for their bandages during the process of mummification.
And from an aesthetic point of view, the blooms could be dried to make a much sought-after perfume.
From a medicinal point of view, the silphium plant was seen as a treatment of various maladies, such as anal growths – uh, I have no idea what that means – coughing, swellings, asthma, and dog bites. But, it was also seen as an aphrodisiac. It is believed that the association of romance and love with the shape of the heart is actually derived from the heart-shaped seeds of the silphium plant. Perhaps, most important of all, the sap of the plant was also believed to be an efficient method of birth control by taking an amount about the size of a chickpea once a month. It was also considered an effective treatment for those who wanted an abortion. Perhaps, the reason why the woman featured on the coin reached towards her reproductive area as a sign of its importance in this matter.
Now, silphium could also be used for hair growth when
“applied with wine and saffron, or else pepper or mouse-dung and vinegar.”
I could have used that remedy with wine and saffron but the mouse-dung – not so much.
There were in fact so many uses attributed to silphium, that Pliny the Elder said that listing them
“would be an endless task to enumerate.”
Although the ancient Greeks first used silphium when they settled in Cyrenaica, the ancient Romans soon moved in and also loved their silphium. Maybe a little too much as there is a theory that they may have caused it to go extinct. The ancient Romans took over Cyrenaica around 96 BCE, later combining it with the island of Crete to form a senatorial province, with Cyrene as its capital.
Within a century of this happening, silphium was pretty much extinct.
Although ancient Greek rulers passed laws to limit the harvesting of silphium, it appears that the ancient Romans ignored them. It probably did not help that there was also a vibrant black market for the stuff.
So valuable was the herb to the ancient Romans that Julius Caesar took a large amount of silphium – about 1500 lbs. to be exact – out of the public treasury. Also, ancient Romans measured the value of laser – that silphium sap – as the same amount in weight as silver coins. So, pretty valuable stuff.
Songs, plays and poetry referenced silphium. For example, ancient Roman poet, Catullus, who lived from 84 BCE to 54 BCE, wrote about his lover, Lesbia, that they share kisses,
“as many as there are grains of sand on Cyrene’s silphium shores.”
That may sound romantic at the time but, now knowing silphium’s extinction, perhaps not.
Petronius Arbiter also referenced the herb in his work, The Satyricon of Petronius Volume 2, in one of the greatest stories of culinary indulgence ever committed to paper – or is that papyrus? – “The Dinner of Trimalchio.”
And, of course, the ingredient is also mentioned in the most famous culinary book of the time, “De re Coquinaria,” which is attributed to Apicius – although, if you listen to my episode on the history of cookbooks, you’ll find out more about how this book actually came about. As well as mentioning various uses of “laser,” in Book 1, number 16, Apicius does give a useful tip to
“Ut Nuncia Laseris Toto Tempore Utaris.”
Or, for our chums like me who don’t really follow Latin,
“Making a Little Laser Go a Long Way.”
The reference being to show how expensive silphium was and how it should be used sparingly, or even by just flavoring another ingredient to add the laser flavor.
“Put the laser in a spacious glass vessel; immerse about 20 pine kernels. If you need laser flavor, take some nuts, crush them; they will impart to your dish an admirable flavor. Replace the used nuts with a like number of fresh ones.”
Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, silphium became so popular that by the 2nd century BCE, it was in short supply and then completely impossible to find. Pliny the Elder again references this in his work, “The Natural History,”
“Within the memory of the present generation, a single stalk is all that has ever been found there, and that was sent as a curiosity to the Emperor Nero.”
Although he does go on to mention, rather amusingly, that
“If it so happen that one of the flock, while grazing, meets with a growing shoot of it, the fact is easily ascertained by the following signs; the sheep, after eating of it, immediately falls asleep, while the goat is seized with a fit of sneezing.”
He also goes on to mention that a variety of silphium was still available from Persia, Medea and Armenia. But, that it is far, far below the silphium from Cyrene in quality. We believe that this is in fact a form of silphium which is still available today. That’s an herb called, “Asafoetida,” which I know primarily for its use in Indian cuisine where it is known as “hing.” It was used primarily for culinary purposes. and while the ancient Romans thought it was a reasonable replacement, it was not the same.
Over the years, there has been much discussion about what, if anything made silphium extinct. The two main reasons were the combined effect of overgrazing by animals on the fertile stretch of land on which the plant was grown along with the over cropping of the plant by the relentless Romans of the ancient world. There are even those who believe that the plant may have become extinct because of the desertification of the land as a consequence of climate change, or even by the deliberate destruction of the plant by the native population as a form of resistance to their occupiers.
It is, of course, impossible to tell, but from a purely culinary point of view, I have to say, it would be amazing to try some laser and see why Julius Caesar wanted 1,500 pounds of it, don’t you think?
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
ODD BEASTS & BIRDS
I was prompted to write this segment by an episode of one of my favorite history podcasts, the BBC History Extra Podcast, where Dr. Lee Raye discusses animals that had become extinct in Britain since medieval times.
It made me think of animals that might have been part of the diet around the world over the centuries, but which have now either disappeared because they were well, too popular, or because our current tastes have changed.
Now, I want to be really careful in this part of the episode. Mainly, because I don’t want this to become an “oooh, look at those odd people from history, didn’t they eat some funny things” kind of feature. The kind of feature that really annoys me when I see it as clickbait on the internet.
Instead, I want to look at communities throughout history and see why they ate what animals and birds they did, however unusual that may seem to us today. That could be because of availability. It could be because of trade. It could be because of indulgence, or indeed simply to show off their levels of wealth. It could be, as we will see, because of religious prescription, or lack of religious prescription.
We can see why those dishes begin to lose appeal and, is there any chance that any of them might be able to make a comeback.
So, let’s start pretty much at the beginning. The Neanderthal – or Homo neanderthalensis – populated earth from around 400,000 years to 40,000 years ago, and for part of their existence they lived alongside the surviving humans of today, the Homo sapiens. Their diet was very much that of the ice-age based scavenger, and primarily consisted of the large mammals they could find dead or manage to hunt. However, they were also, it has been found, partial to seafood too. Some of which definitely might not be so apparent on the modern table, such as mussels, sharks, eels, seals, and dolphins.
Our early ancestors’ diet was more omnivorous – they ate whatever was available. Much of the evidence for this comes from the new scientific insight into the teeth of the earliest homo sapiens. Tooth morphology, as it is known, is basically a study of the teeth. In this case, the studies show that early in their existence, Homo sapiens ate seeds, nuts, and tubers. However, over a period of time, they became more carnivorous, adding meats from animals, as well as marrow from the bones, into their diet. The earliest evidence we can find of hunting implements dates from around 500,000 years ago. We can also find evidence of this in marks of butchery that have appeared on recovered animal bones. One discovery at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania shows us that there was evidence that early humans were eating mammals that ranged in size from
“hedgehogs to elephants.”
Whereas at a site in Koobi Fora in Kenya, evidence from butchered animals and the fossil fauna shows that they were also adding turtles, crocodiles and fish to their diets too.
The butchery of these animals could have taken place after what was known as passive scavenging, that is, finding an animal that had naturally died or been taken down by another predator. Or by active scavenging, that is, basically the beginnings of hunting.
Many scientists believe that it was this move to a more carnivorous calorie dense meat and marrow diet that fueled the growth of the human brain, and the next stages of human development.
As National Geographic puts it, when they were unable to find animals to hunt or scavenge, then
“‘man the hunter’ is backed up by ‘woman the forager.’”
Once early humans moved from the period of being more nomadic hunter gatherers to becoming more settled in communities, their diets inevitably began to change. While the development of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, may have brought a consistency of supply, particularly of grains, which we believe helped spur a growth in population, it also resulted in a decline in the diversity of human diets, with nearly 70% of it now coming from grains. The domestication of early humans and the change this brought in their diet arguably led to an increase in human diseases, such as iron deficiencies and diabetes. It was also a time where the proteins that people ate would be what, I would assume, they could find locally, particularly before methods of preserving foods had become developed.
But, that’s not to say that, with the origins of communities, all food became boring. Archaeological research has found the remains of spices in cooking implements in Northern European agricultural prehistoric communities that date back to the Neolithic era about 6,200 to 5,900 years ago. These early humans used spices, such as garlic mustard, to flavor food such as roe deer and wild cow. This suggests that early humans not only ate for sustenance but also for flavor.
In ancient Egypt, where they were game hunters, they caught many local animals that might seem a little strange to us now if they were to appear on our tables as part of a meal. Gazelles – a type of antelope – which they roasted with honey, cranes and hedgehogs appeared on the menu, and perhaps most surprisingly were dishes that contained the flesh from hippos. They would also use the skins and the fat from the hippos, which they sometimes hunted as a form of animal control because hippos had a voracious appetite and they tended to eat all the crops. Hippos were also considered a sign of life of the Nile. The killing of a hippo, particularly in the early part of ancient Egypt, was considered a sign of strength often associated with the king. So, I am guessing that the arrival of hippo meat on the table would have been something that would have only been accessible to the wealthy members of society. I’m not even sure that even with my pretty adventurous palate, I would want a hippo sandwich if I was offered one now.
I think if we were to think of the ancient world in terms of unusual animals that were eaten, then I suspect most minds would immediately turn towards ancient Rome. Particularly, those people who grew up in the generation that gave us Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and its famous scene where a snack seller is seen wandering around a slightly bedraggled arena offering
“otter’s noses, ocelot spleens.”
That’s my best John Cleese impression.
For the ancient Romans, where this meal could be seen at its most lavish and extravagant, was during the great banquets. These were not just a meal. These were a show of power. A way of showing your peers, friends and rivals that you were above them on the social scale. And, the uniqueness and innovation of the food was all part of that.
Dishes might include sausages stuffed with brain or rice mixed with pearls. In the first segment, we mentioned the work of the great ancient Roman culinarian, Apicius. In the work attributed to him, “De re Coquinaria,” he mentions a number of preparations for a dish called, “Spayed Sow’s Womb.” Sows that were destined for the table were not allowed to have piglets, so their wombs could be kept perfect. And just to go full circle, this recipe also uses silphium along with vinegar and broth.
Other dishes in ancient Roman banquets may have included
“camel heels, cock combs, parrot head, mullet beards, and nightingale tongues.”
One of ancient Rome’s later emperors, Elagabalus, was one of the Roman Empire’s most toxic of emperors, but also known to be very indulgent. In the work, “Historia Augusta,” which catalogues the lives of the Caesars, Elagabalus is particularly scorned. He is accused of calling for human sacrifice of beautiful children of noble birth. He’s also accused of many other offenses, which meant that his reign – from 218 to 222 CE – was a short one.
Elagabalus was known to throw the most extravagant of parties imaginable. The “Historia Augusta” saying that
“He never spent less on a banquet than one hundred thousand sesterces, that is, thirty pounds of silver; and sometimes he even spent as much as three million when all the cost was computed.”
“Indeed, for him life was nothing except a search after pleasures. He was the first to make force-meat of fish, or of oysters of various kinds or similar shell-fish, or of lobsters, crayfish and squills. ”
“he would give an order to bring in to him ten thousand mice, a thousand weasels, or a thousand shrew-mice.”
“At one dinner where there were many tables he brought in the heads of six hundred ostriches in order that the brains might be eaten.”
It is interesting that the ostrich has now become available again and is actually being raised in the United States and around the world as an alternative and lean form of protein. Although, I’m still sure I wouldn’t want to eat the brain.
It is unsurprising that, with this level of indulgence, and the behavior he was to display at these parties, that his reign was, as I said, a short one that ended in a vicious death where he was
“slain by common soldiers, dragged through the streets, contemptuously thrust into sewers, and finally cast into the Tiber.”
But, while he may have been one of the most extreme of ancient Roman diners, he was certainly not the only one.
Other dishes that were often on the menu would be ones that one would not consider today, even if one could find them, including ostriches, which seem to have been quite popular in the ancient world, and for which gourmand Apicius has quite a few recipes.
Cranes, flamingos and parrots were also on the menu. Apicius suggests that one
“Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar, to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must to give it color. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve. Parrot is prepared in the same manner.”
Good to know. Always wanted to know what to do with my parrot.
And, according to Pliny the Elder, Apicius was known to have declared that one particular part of the flamingo was the most prized. He said,
“Apicius, that very deepest whirlpool of all our epicures, has informed us that the tongue of the [flamingo] is of the most exquisite flavour.”
Another dish that was a favorite on ancient Roman menus was stuffed dormice. These were kept in special jars with ledges on the side, to allow the mice to run around, while they were being fattened up. One of the jars was recently found in the destroyed city of Pompeii during an excavation. Apparently, the animals were gutted, and then stuffed with minced pork. It was also glazed with honey before being eaten.
Now, much of this indulgent eating was made possible by the fact that ancient Rome was a slave driven society. The ownership of slaves who could take part in the often labor-intensive work to create these dishes allowed for the culinary indulgence of their masters.
And, while we’re talking about Pompeii, let us finish our discussion about ancient Rome, by mentioning the fact that during excavations of an area of the city that contained shops that sold food and drink, many remains of what the Romans ate were discovered. This gave great insight into the everyday food that was being consumed. But, it also showed that in what was once a bustling city, they had some exotic tastes too. One of the bones that was excavated was that of a butchered leg of a giraffe. Now, this is believed to have been the only bone from a giraffe found in Italy itself. But, it does show that if someone wanted something unusual to eat in Rome, it could probably be obtained at a price.
Moving on to the Medieval period, we see unusual diets stemming from religious prescription that prohibited consumption of warm-blooded animals on at least three days of the week.
Wednesday, the day when Judas sold out Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Friday, as an act of penance for the death of Jesus on the cross. And Saturday, in honor of the Virgin Mary. There were also other days when meat was not allowed to be eaten, including the 40 days of Lent. Lent began on Ash Wednesday, and so the day before, Shrove Tuesday, as celebrated in medieval England, a bell would be rung, giving everyone the last chance to go to confession and to be “shriven.” Then, they ate soon-to-be forbidden foods such as pancakes made from eggs, milk, butter and fats, which were ingredients that were not allowed to be consumed during Lent. Medieval England may have Shrove Tuesday, while Americans have Fat Tuesday. Same concept.
Fish, being cold blooded, was perfectly fine to eat during these religious holidays. But, eating fish all the time could definitely become a bit of a chore, as one medieval school boy noted in his journal
“Thou will not believe how weary I am of fish, and how much I desire that flesh come in again. For I have eat none other than salt fish this Lent, and it has engendered so much phlegm within me that it stops my pipes that I can scarcely speak nor breathe.”
I can quite understand it. Much as I like fish, 40 days with nothing but salted fish is too much for even the most spiritually dedicated.
So, people began to get creative. Now, before I move on, and this has nothing to do with our subject in hand, but I know that you will love this particular “things to bore people with at dinner parties” fact. One of the things German bakers did during Lent to get creative was to create food out of flour, salt and water. They made the dough and folded it so it looked like hands crossed in prayer, and called it “bracellae,” meaning “little arms,” which later got translated to “pretzel” in English. So now you know why pretzels are the shape they are. As I said, this has got nothing to do with the subject at hand, but it’s my podcast.
As I said, people began to get creative during Lent, and their creativity extended to how they defined “fish.” This included, beaver tails – because they were scaly like fish – rabbit fetuses, porpoises, and barnacle geese – a type of goose that people believed hatched from barnacles – and even, puffins.
A group of Benedictine monks at Le Treport in France, were found to be eating puffins on a regular basis. Their argument was that puffins were fish as they spent most of their time in the water. Just so you know, they did get in trouble with the archbishop for their very special brand of “creativity.”
Another animal that we might consider to be very unusual as an ingredient from the medieval period would be the swan. From the 12th century, in Britain, the swan had always been associated with aristocracy and royal lineage. Owning swans was a sign of displaying wealth, and swans were served at feasts, where they were a centerpiece to the table, often served with a smoking piece of incense stuffed into the beak of the swan. They were particularly prized as a Christmas dish. There are tales where one particular monarch, Henry III, who reigned until 1272, sent out demands for him to be supplied with vast numbers of swans for his festivals. On one occasion, in 1247, he demanded a supply of up to forty of the birds for his Christmas celebrations to be held in Winchester. And, by 1251, he was obviously inviting many more people because he upped the number to 125 for another Christmas festival in York.
There is a misconception that swans were, and still are, owned by the British royal family. In fact, in the medieval period, you could buy a swan mark, or license, at a price of six shillings – a considerable amount of money back then – and attach the mark as a distinctive notch into the beak of any swan that you captured, so that people were aware that it belonged to you. The price for a license was exorbitant enough that only the most wealthy, usually noble people, could afford it. Any swans that did not have a notch on their beak automatically belonged to the crown. And the penalty for stealing a swan was a large fine, or up to a year’s incarceration. According to the 1570 “Order of the Swannes”
“if any person do raze out, counterfeit or alter the mark of any swan [they …] shall suffer one year’s imprisonment.”
By the 1700s, the number of licenses had reduced so that the only people owning the swans would be the royal family, the Dyers, and the Vintners. They each had their own mark that they would place on the swan’s beak. The royal mark was, for instance, two diamond shaped marks on the bill.
This led to an event that is now a yearly tradition in England, that of “Swan Upping.” Basically, a census of the protected mute swans that live on the River Thames, although it is now conducted as a way to protect the birds and their habitat than for any nefarious reasons. I’ve been lucky enough to see the event happening, and it is worth it to spot the small number of boats being rowed up the River Thames on a five day jaunt that sees the “Queen’s Swan Marker” and their “uppers” crying “Swan Up” if they spot a family of swans and cygnets. The birds are weighed, and checked for illnesses before being released again.
Which is actually a good way to bring us across the pond and to the American colonies and to some of the more interesting things that were on the menu when the first colonizers arrived. Now, prior to the arrival of the first colonists, Native Americans hunted animals, such as duck, venison, elk, bison, rabbits etcetera as part of their diet.
When the colonists arrived, they also used local ingredients and animals that they found available, including swans. What had been a luxury item in Britain was plentily available in the Americas, and dishes like stewed swan began to appear on the menu. Alongside these were other local ingredients that I suspect we might give a hard pass to right now.
Beavers were popular as food, particularly before they became more valued for their pelts. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the tail tasted like pork rinds. Hmmmm…… Apparently, the best way to bring about this taste was by roasting the tail over an open fire. Turtles were also popular, and people used to have Turtle Roasts at a high society affair.
And, finally, in so many ways, let’s finish this episode with perhaps one of the strangest ingredients that I know of, which is known as “ambergris.” This is an ingredient that has been used by humans for centuries, but its source was only discovered in the 1800s when its producer – sperm whales – began to be hunted in massive numbers. Ambergris is formed when the sperm whale eats cephalopods such as squid and cuttlefish. The shells, beaks, etcetera, move into the whales intestines where they bind together to stop them harming the internal parts of the whale.
Now, there is some discussion as to whether this bound up mess is vomited or excreted from the whale. But, in either event, there might be quite a lot of questions as to how this odd ingredient came to be used by humans at all, let alone in food, particularly as its initial smell is meant to be slightly, um, fecal. Ugh. Although it is said to improve over time.
In his classic novel, “Moby Dick,” author Herman Melville discusses the changing smell of the ambergris, and some of its food and non-food uses.
“ambergris is soft, waxy, and so highly fragrant and spicy that it is largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders, and pomatum. The Turks use it in cooking, and also carry it to Mecca, for the same purpose that frankincense is carried to St. Peter’s in Rome. Some wine merchants drop a few grains into claret, to flavor it.”
I know this is not a competition, but, if we were looking for a winner, I suspect that something that was excreted by whales in the 17th century might just be our champion.
What do you think?
See you next week folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: May 2, 2022
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.