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Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Saber-toothed non-marsupial (Musk Deer)
Photo by: pengp-au

hierba de almizcle, almizclera, aguja de Nuestra Señora, hebra del moro, OCast almizque, almizcado L. Erodium moschatum, Ar. mĭsk or al’milhrâs, Sanskrit muska (testicle), Eng. musk, musky storkbill.  

1. an inspissated and dried testicular secretion emitted from the preputial follicles of the male musk deer L. Moschus moschiferus, of the gazelle family to attract the female. This is a reddish brown, aromatic, thick substance, like honey, when fresh. It has been called “the perfume of kings.” Today one follicle is worth $45,000. During the Middle Ages, it was extracted from the scent bags of the deer located behind the naval. 

La Celestina (the medieval Spanish Jewish witch doctoress), Fernando de Rojas published the dialogue in 1499,  describes it as a unicorn when actually it  has horns like other deer but it does have two protruding fangs as seen in the photo. She says that when the female is in heat the males become so excited the naval enlarges and hurts so much that they become furious. They do not eat or drink. They rub their bodies on tree trunks and sharp rocks until they have an erection (or find a Mrs.). She claims that hunters want to kill just before the erection which in fact is not so but she makes a good story. The entire follicle is extracted from the deer and it is sun dried or dried on a hot rock. Then musk deer inhabited central Asia, India, the Himalayas above 8,000 feet, China and Russia. 

Musk was exported to Arab countries. Romans and Arabs used musk in perfumes for its powerful, long lasting odor and aphrodisiac effects and in medicine as an anti-spasmodic and stimulant. Al-Andalus poets of the 12 C. lauded the smell of musk, comparing it with all intense aromas and perfume. Crusaders took it to England where it was added to sweat dishes such as custards with ambergris through the 17th C. (See ámbar gris.) 

La Celestina  instructs that it must be kept air tight iron or tin container in a closed space as the odor can easily penetrate the are in which it is stored if not. She used it to cure headaches, as a mouthwash for good breath, as a heart tonic imbibed and rubbed on the chest and to improve the memory. It does figure in the inventory of Ferdinand of Naples but not in Nola’s recipes. It has been discovered that musk is in the glands of alligators and crocodiles.

Musk (Mimulus moschatus)
Photo by: www.fs.fed.us
2. musk plants. These include those from the genus Mimulus moschatus, musk plant, Erodium, heron’s bill, and Muscari, grape hyacinth. Perry sites Huici as claiming that Anon. Andalus recipes calling for musk could be muscatel, musk-crowfoot or hollow-root but this is not stated in Huici’s translation. Their fragrance is similar to that of musk deer. It was extracted from plants only when real musk was not available. 

With the disappearance of the market for the deer’s follicle secretions, one today automatically thinks the plant is the real musk when actually it was only a substitute in medieval times, which according to Castro was grown in Sevillan gardens. Actually, it grows all over Spain and on the Balearic Islands in meadows and hidden spots. It is interesting to note that when included in meat recipes in Anon. Andalus it is dissolved in rosewater with camphor or ground with galingale. When added to sweets or syrups, it can be added with rosewater or alone but not with camphor or galingale. Castro claims that musk was basic in Andalusian cuisine. It was synonymous with luxury and exoticness. It has been known as a perfume and at times has been called the ‘Moor’s perfume’. 

Avenzoar claimed that as a medication it has two varieties: one hot and one cold. Both raise the spirits, augment strength and are recommended to absorb vapors that black bile forces up to the head], producing anxiety and nightmares. He used it to treat those suffering from obsessions, for the insane, to alleviate epileptics, to purify blood in the heart and to improve one’s consistency. 
[Anón/Huici.1966:50:40:88:62:203:128 etc; Bolens. Cuisine. 1990:213; Castro. Alimentación. 1996:295; ES: Anon/Perry. Sep 5 00:ftn 126; ES: Felter. “Moschus.” May 8, 03; ES: Lord Culinary. Mar 4, 08: ES: “Musk-Mallor.” May 8, 03; ES: “Muskdeer.” May 8, 03; ES: Shamsuddín. “Aromas.” Jul 23, 05; Ibn Razin/Granja.1960:52:21-22, Ibn Zuhr/García Sánchez. 1992:111; Laza, 2002:95; Nola/Pérez. 1994:37; and Pullar. 1970:82:255]

1 batch


Date and Nut Turnovers
Photo by: Max Falkowitz
**1 musk deer follicle with secretion
12 c whole-wheat flour
2/3 c gluten flour
2 1/2 tsp yeast
5 c hot water
2 teaspoons salt
2/3 c oils
2 1/2 tsp lemon juice
1 lb dates
2 c blanched and chopped almonds
¼ c sugar
2 c honey
1 c pine kernels
1 c extra virgin olive oil
1 c chopped walnuts
a few grains of musk
¼ c rosewater

Preheat oven to 350º F


Mix seven cups of flour with the yeast and gluten flour. Stir until well blended.

Add the water and mix for one minute until the mixture is well coated and begins to resemble dough.
Combine the salt and oil, mixing thoroughly. Add lemon juice. Stir vigorously for one minute until all ingredients are well distributed throughout the dough.

Put in the remaining five cups of flour and beat vigorously for 6-10 minutes.

Rollout half the dough making a square the size of a serving dish.

Remove pits from dates, chop and knead until soft. Add almonds and honey. Knead until well distributed. Roll out half of this mixture making it the same size as the dough and about ¼” thick.

Put a sheet of baking parchment paper on a baking sheet. Put the dough on that. Put the date and almond mix on top. Fold the dough over to make a turnover. Pat it with oil.

When slightly brown put it on a serving plate and pour hot honey over it. Make holes in the turnover with the fingers to absorb the honey. Sprinkle with pine kernels on top and perfume with musk,
With the other half of the dough make flat cakes. Fill them with the rest of the stuffing. Fry them in extra virgin olive oil and place them on a serving dish and pour boiling honey with chopped walnuts over them. Dissolve what you can of musk in boiling rosewater and lightly sprinkle the cakes. Although the smell is lovely it is bitter.   

*See alcorza published on July 11, 2011 for a variation of the same recipe. Also, a similar recipe from Anón Al-Andalus was published on November 17, 2011 in ARROBA.
**Yeah, sure – Just joking.! I wouldn’t be sharing this recipe if I had $45,000!!! 


  1. What can be like musk in alligators, I do not dare to think...
    Where can you pick up such things and camphor and (vegetable) musk? Unless you go to the Pharmacy in the Royal Palace in Madrid or in El Escorial, where you are sure to find also unicorn's horn, of course!

  2. Today, there are three places to go: Indian and Arab food stores and internet. It's a fight to find some place near you but cheaper than buying on internet as the stores buy bulk.

  3. You are very funny. El Escorial and the Royal Palace only sell the containers, not the product as far as I know!

  4. Dear Susan, as Groucho Marx said, who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes? Of course in El Escorial or the Royal Palace they only sell the containers in the souvenir shop, BUT in the Pharmacy museums, you can see the original jars in glass with their stuff still in them. The ceramic jars and the drawers of course you cannot investigate, but I imagine they are pretty much the same. Even more: the Pharmacy of El Escorial is still working, there is an specialist monk on charge, and every year (or every few years) there's an international congress of the Alchemist Association. Good to know!

  5. As there is something of everything in among my in-laws there was an auntue who was tour guide in the Royal Palace Pharmacy. According to her the ceramic jars and drawers did contain the what the label indicates. She actually experimented with some but New World products so I don't remember seeing ambergris but I would not be surprised if there is some. Unfortunately, she passed away so I can't ask her.