Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Truffles and ambergris

From this Wikipedia article on truffle extraction (I was charmed by the table of differences between truffle hogs and truffle dogs), I was led on to an article on truffle vodka and thence to this piece by Nicholas Coldicott in the Japan Times on great/horrific infusions of various kinds:
There are, as I write, bottles of homemade pepper vodka, perilla vodka and wasabi vodka on my coffee table. There's a hops vodka and a banana vodka on top of my fridge. There's a butter vodka in the fridge, a black truffle vodka on the sideboard and an ambergrease vodka on top of my wine cellar, but we'll come to that later. My infusion mentor has been Hiroshi Tsuchiya of vodka bar Bloody Doll in Ginza. [...] Once you accept soy sauce as a viable drink flavor, the possibilities are vast. I drafted a list of infusion ideas with a vodkaphile friend. It began fairly sensibly with a list of Japanese citrus fruits, but as the e-mails bounced to and fro, they became more imaginative. Leather, I suggested. Wild boar, said Tom, or how about caramel popcorn? What if I took all the ingredients pictured on the side of a Bombay Sapphire bottle and infused them in vodka? How about sarsaparilla, Marmite, agave, tofu, Champagne, cacao or smoke?
(My friend Jeremy and I tried to make hop-infused vodka last year; there were multiple attempts none of which was a success. It tasted either exactly like vodka or impossibly bitter -- and I am quite fond of bitter beers. It is possible that one needs a high-end vodka to pick up the hops before they become overpowering. An odd consequence of the entire experiment was that it spoiled a few beers, like Bell's Two-hearted Ale, that I used to like a lot.)

Coldicott goes on to write about the final frontier, viz. ambergris infusions (adding ambergris-infused vodka to expensive Japanese whiskey "boosted the oriental character of the drink"). It is interesting to compare his take on ambergris:
Though it sounds like something a mechanic wipes from his hands after a long day, ambergrease is far more revolting: it's the vomited bile of a sperm whale. When the big mammal eats something that disagrees with him, his gut excretes the bile. When he's sick or scared, he purges. By all accounts, ambergrease leaves its host as a foul-smelling gloop but dries into a rock with an aroma not unlike musk. In the past, it was prescribed as an invigorative cordial or a fertility aid. These days, only posh perfumers and incense makers use the substance.
with Melville's (in what, as far as I can tell, is the only fart joke in Moby Dick):
Stubb was beginning to look disappointed, especially as the horrible nosegay increased, when suddenly from out the very heart of this plague, there stole a faint stream of perfume, which flowed through the tide of bad smells without being absorbed by it [...] he thrust both hands in, and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soap, or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savory withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash color. And this, good friends, is ambergris, worth a gold guinea an ounce to any druggist. Some six handfulls were obtained [...] Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. By some, ambergris is supposed to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the dyspepsia in the whale. How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth's pills, and then running out of harm's way, as laborers do in blasting rocks. 
According to the OED, a character in one of Charles Sedley's (Restoration) plays vows to breakfast on "new laid eggs, ambergrease and gravy."


zbs said...

In my experience the quality of the vodka has very little at all to do with the result of any infusion. Perhaps post-brewing hops would be better? Seems like a difficult flavor to use on its own.

Zed said...

Well your intuitions are probably sound. Our calculus was simply that anything "herbal" would probably infuse well, but it swiftly became clear that hops don't work like that. It was the only infusion I've ever tried...

Elisa said...


The bitterness of hops is tolerable in beer because of the other sugars present. It's a balance thang.

Gin, I'm pretty sure, is basically just infused vodka. They're both grain liquors but gin has flavors added.

Zed said...

Hm, maybe glucose-and-hop-infused vodka is the way to go... I am sure you're right re gin. As for "ambergrease" (the spelling I assume?), it is a rare-ish variant nowadays -- in the Japan Times, most probably a mistake -- but the fake etym. was also a 17th cent. eggcorn of sorts, the OED has an example of "grease of amber" (?!) as well as an enigmatic quotation from 1614: "Is not Ambergreese coastly?"

Elisa said...

Do people usually pronounce the S? I pronounce the second syllable like the French for gray - gree

Word verif is griespol

Zed said...

OED says they otter. Generally I think people overestimate the antiquity of silences in French. Lovely word verif, thanks.

Elisa said...

Wow, the audio pronunciation on Merriam Webster has it as amber-griss. Ew! I'm sticking to the Frenchy way.