A Scoop of …. with Your Ice Cream

Whaling became a global industry because there was a need, and thus a market, for the products derived from blubber and baleen. Lamps, lighthouses and streetlights were all lit with one form or another of whale oil. Spermaceti candles were a valued commodity because they burned cleanly without smoke. Lubricants were made from the blubber and jaw pads of toothed whales. Corset stays, collar stiffeners, leaf springs and other products were sliced out of baleen. But, perhaps the most unusual source of a whale-based product is the black, tarry substance secreted by the intestines of male sperm whales. This unusual biological creation is known as ambergris, French for gray amber.

Beak of giant squid (Architeuthis dux). Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Beak of giant squid (Architeuthis dux). Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Sperm whales eat lots of squid. Squid digest well, except for their beaks. If the whale doesn’t vomit the beaks they will pass through the three stomachs into the intestines. The sharp edges of the beak most likely irritate the inner walls of the intestines. Thus, some sperm whales, apparently only males, secrete the ambergris to coat the sharp edges of the beaks. Eventually the lump of beaks, ambergris and other digestive tract material find their way out the back end of the whale. Once in the water, which is colder than the inside of a whale, the ambergris becomes much more of a solid. Exposure to air and salt can oxidize the lump and lighten its color to gray rather than black, hence the name.

Ambergris and Scrimshaw Tooth from Capt. Harry Mandly of Valkyria

Ambergris and Scrimshaw Tooth from Capt. Harry Mandly of Valkyria

Some of us here have wondered who first figured out that a substance (a protein called ambrein) could be extracted from these lumps and used in perfumes as a fixative for color and aroma. What types of experiments were he/she/they doing? Did they know the source of this ambergris? Were they searching for something else?

We do know that ambergris has been used in food, burned as incense and used as an aphrodisiac for centuries. However, I think it may come as a surprise to learn that the first known recorded recipe for ice cream would include ambergris, or ambergreece, as it’s written in the recipe, as a potential ingredient.

The story of the origin of ice cream is a fun read anyway. You can listen to a podcast on Gastropod or read their article. But, to know that a substance that comes out of the back end of a whale was part of the original recipe is amusing. People have mixed it into their eggs and shaved it on top of their port wine. But, if it finds its way back into ice cream, it will have to happen in another country. Use of ambergris, and all other marine mammal products has been outlawed in the U.S. since 1972 when the Marine Mammal Protection Act went into effect.

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