Photo by: Christian Loader
On the Portuguese Atlantic coast, it is abundant. Muslims there imported ambergris from the Algarve and Madagascar. It was highly valued for its fragrance once aged as it was used in expensive perfumes around the Mediterranean.
In Al-Andalus, it was used frequently not only in perfumery but in Aphrodisiac products as well. It was added as flavoring to sweets and beverages in the Middle East. The English added it to sweat dishes such as “Paste-Royal,” custards and pancakes along with musk (see almirze). It is said that Charles II of England ate it in his eggs for breakfast.
During the Middle Ages it was added to ragouts and jams as well. Hispano Arabs used it in incense burners as the fragrance lasted a long time. Al-Andalus poets lauded ambergris to the extent that it became the synonym for perfume.
Abu Yahya Mu’izz ad-Daula al-Mu’tasim billah (g. 1052-1091), sovereign of Almeria, sent the following message to one of his wives by carrier pigeon: “This pigeon will transmit, as proof of my affections, fragrant, perfumed messages with sweet-smelling odor of ‘abir (ambergris).” In 1362, during a reception offered by Muhammad V, the Nazrid Sultan, to inaugurate various new rooms in the Alhambra palace an uprising almost occurred during the responses in unison of the dikr (remembrance of Allah) when they turned into a competition between the elite and the commoners. The incident was quailed by filling the hall with the smoke of “magic” ambergris and then showering the guests with rosewater. The awe was so great that the guests were silenced and the ceremonies resumed.
Ambergris was used also as an antispasmodic and a stimulant. Laguna maintained that it fortified the brain and the heart. It is so smooth, he continued, that it comforts weakened limbs, sharpens understanding and clears foul air. [Alberry. 2001:57: ftn 4; ES: Caroline’s; ES: Shamsuddín. “Aromas.” Jul 23, 05; Groundes-Peace. 1971:118; and Pullar. 1970:255]
LORD CONWAY'S AMBERGRIS PUDDINGS
From: W.M., The Queen's Closet Opened (London: 1655)
1 ½ lb blanched almonds
1 lb lard
1 ½ lb sugar
4 loaves of white bread (8 cups = 1 lb loaf of bread?)
½ oz amber grease
1/8 oz musk
¼ pt orange blossom water
Thoroughly wash intestines and hang out to dry. Chop the almonds. Then grind half them into powder. Mix all the almonds with the lard. Add sugar. Grate the bread over this mixture. Add ambergris. Bruise musk in a marble mortar with orange blossom water and mix well. Fill the intestines with the mixture. Tie intestines shut and prick holes in them. As this is a 17th C recipe the pudding is grilled. During the Middle Ages it would have been boiled.
This recipe was given as a great rarity to Lord Conway at a reception in his honor by an Italian. The lord in turn gave the recipe to the queen’s ladies of honor.