Monday, June 2, 2014

On smoking whale vomit

"It's an undersea smell, they say, briny, like the inside of a sea shell and slightly fecal to begin with, studded with buttons of squid bones. It will mature to become grainy, musky and precious for its rarity. To verify, heat a needle above a flame and slide it into the waxen flesh. The smoke will be white and sublime in fragrance. Miraculous."


An old whaler placed a piece of ambergris in my palm the other day.
"How can you be sure?" I asked him.
"Ahh, oh, I dunno, mate. This old bloke just gave it to me and said it was ambergris."

It was quite black, looked like a meteorite, felt waxy to the touch and weighed nothing. I held it in my hand and sniffed at it. It didn't smell like much. I wondered about the whale who'd once carried the lump of ebony stuff in its stomach through several oceans, hemispheres, for decades. How did 'this old bloke' get hold of it? Did he find it on a beach after a whale had vomited it up? Did he dive into the hot belly of a slaughtered whale and dig it out? Did someone sell it to him in a bar or a Nantucket souvenir shop?

"Let's sink a hot needle into it and see what it smells like," I said to the whaler. So we went from the carefully-curated museum in his lounge room, up the hallway, to his kitchen table where a forest of Worcester, Tomato and Barbeque sauce bottles stood over an understory of chaotic ashtrays, empty coffee cups and stacks of the old whalechasers' log books.

"I've got some needles here somewhere," he rummaged through the kitchenette, brought out a biscuit tin and reefed open the lid. He started emptying a whole sewing kit onto the table; a quick unpick, cotton reels and packs of pins and sewing needles. "Whaddaya reckon? The quick unpick?"
"Just give me a decent needle that won't burn my fingers."
He eased an upholstery needle from its cardboard sheath and handed it to me. I flicked the cigarette lighter and held the flame to the metal. He placed the ambergris on the plastic, flowered tablecloth and I plunged the red hot needle into the lump.

Both of us leaned in to get a whiff of the white smoke that plumed from the needle and then reeled away coughing. It was a bit like smoking hash from heated-up bread knives except this delivery system was via our nostrils. Mick must have got more than me because his coughing fit lasted several minutes (later he blamed it on a lifetime of White Ox), whereas I was merely bemused on how awful the revered, mythical ambergris actually smelt.
"It smells like shit burning," I said.
"It's really bloody stinky mate," He said once he'd drunk a cupful of water from the kitchen sink and recovered.

And it was. But there was something else beneath it; something sublime and utterly inexplicable.
Anyone who has read the perfect novel that is Jitterbug Perfume will know that under any fecal, nasty smell lies something more beautiful, something that goes straight to our old lizardy selves. Sure it smelt like burning shit but it also carried the very essence of sex, death and the nature of humanity. Both of us agreed about this. (This is coming from two smokers with no knowledge of perfumery.)
It was there, it was amazing and we smoked it.

19 comments:

  1. I read so many adventure tales about stolen/smuggled/poached ambergris when I was a wee lass; I found this far more exciting than I probably should have. Hearing that it was a bit like petrified shit took a bit of the mystique out, but.

    It's hard to believe the stuff is more potent than White Ox, though. White Ox: the flavour of the open road -- like smoking the very highway itself.

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  2. Like burning rubber, you mean?

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    1. I think it means something more akin to huffing the fumes of a lump of flaming bitumen.

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  3. I don't remember ever having smoked ambergris, but I do get a sense of it from your description. I think the best smells are complex, like this one.

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  4. It was Michelle. It was intense and complicated.

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  5. I spent twenty years in the wine game. The best wines for smell were always the ones teetering on the edge of acceptability, a single scent short of revolting.

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    1. An excellent anecdote for ambergris Ciaran. That is just what it was like.

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  6. That stuff is worth a FORTUNE. A football-sized bit is thousands, if you sell it to a French Parfumier. I'm serious.

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    1. And I mean thousands. I keep my eyes out for lumps of it whenever I walk the flotsam line here. Usually I find lumps of tar.

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  7. What? OMG! Have never heard of this before -- how fascinating! Tom, what would a French Parfumier use it for, specifically?

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    1. Making perfume. I don't know the details, but it is an underlying ingredient to many old-fashioned perfumes and a little goes a long way. The other advantage is that - unlike musk - it doesn't involve the mistreatment of any animal - the whale throws up, and Madame Chanel clears up after it.

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  8. If memory serves, ambergris, like musk, was (is?) commonly used as a base scent, partly because of how it smells, I guess, but also because it holds onto the other elements in the fragrance, making the perfume last longer.

    However, like musk cut from the arse end of a stag, I thought it had been supplanted for most legitimate commercial uses.

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    1. I only read this after I replied to Plume's question above, Alex. The thing about ambergris is that it involves no suffering to the whale, so is not as unethical as musk. It can still be used with a clear conscience, and is.

      Sorry, Sarah - we're using your blog as a forum at the moment.

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    2. I messed up and made my comment a general reply rather than a reply to Plume. Not the first time of made that mistake. These threaded replies need more attention to detail than I'm used to.

      I suppose in the old days, it would have been just another product of the whaling industry. Now, I guess you either have to scavenge it off the shore line (or the ocean floor), or source it through Japan and the Faroe Islands and such. And if you're only getting it via the first method, on ethical grounds, I can see why it'd still be valuable. In fact, even if it's now used in much lower quantities. I can imagine it being more valuable than it was back when all those stories I read as a kid were written.

      I've only been following Sarah's blog here for a short while, and I only follow a few blogs besides, but is this not the way comments sections are commonly used? I'd hate to think I was doing something rude.

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  9. Not at all Tom and Alex! You guys go for it. I'm finding it very interesting! I did remember a scene from Moby Dick (or was it another book?) where a whaler dived into a whale's gut to find the ambergris. From what I've found on the net, it's difficult to sell it legally these days, but there are still brokers lurking about the place.

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    1. This reminds me of the old joke beginning 'How do you bring up a baby in Australia?' when that woman was accused of faking the death of her child by Dingos. Do you remember? Anyway, all you need to do is stick your finger down a whale's throat - no harm done.

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    2. Right now I'm picturing a bunch of Frenchmen on a whaling vessel, shoulder deep in a Humpback's maw, groping about for an epiglottis.

      when that woman was accused of faking the death of her child by Dingos. Do you remember?

      Mmm-hmm. That story got so much coverage that I'm sometimes shocked that everyone in this country doesn't have the names Lindy and Azaria Chamberlain permanently burnt into their brains. Then I remember how many people weren't even alive when it happened.

      And then I feel old.

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    3. Not as old as the 30,000 year-old Aborigines, who always said that you cannot trust a pack of dingos. They ought to know.

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  10. Ihave found 80+ grams of ambergris and have actually smoked it to get high. It is not unpleasant and I totally disagree with the description in this articak. It is kinda soap like in taste and sweet. The effects are like a body stone

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