Have you ever tasted civet? Civet essence is obtained from the perineal glands of a mongoose-like creature, and it has a penetrating, warm, sweet odor. Pure civet tincture smells fecal and cloying, but diluted, it has a radiant, velvety scent. A discreet touch of civet can give incredible warmth and diffusion to the simplest floral accords. Natural civet has been slowly phased out, having been replaced by synthetics, yet nothing can truly duplicate the natural essence. If you compare Chanel No 5 made pre-1998 (when natural civet was replaced by its man-made analogue) with the perfume available today, the difference is clear. There is an ineffable richness and opulence that makes the rose and jasmine accord of No 5 seem shimmering.
After this introduction, my original question might seem strange. The use of civet and other animalic essences in fragrance is fairly well-known and can be traced to ancient times. However, equally traditional is the use of animalic essences in food. In The Accomplisht Cook, a cookbook dating to 1685, Robert May published a wide range of recipes for various preparations in the baroque style of his time. Among the sweetmeats, there were several recipes calling for musk, civet and ambergris (see two recipes below.) Although in the 17th century, the use of spices was considerably more refined than that of earlier periods, fragrant flourishes were present in nearly every dish. The floral and animalic essences that most of us today associate with cosmetics and perfumes were widely used in both sweet and savory preparations. Even then, these materials were rare and expensive, available only to wealthy kitchens. Their usage was exotic and original, paralleling the love for civet scented gloves and pomades in European society of the time.
While May’s recipes might strike us today as strange, if you lived through the 40s and 50s, you might have tasted natural civet in various commercial raspberry flavored preparations. It used to be an essential material for constructing the rich, realistic berry flavor. Musk, another animalic essence derived from musk deer, has also been used to create fruit flavors, particularly strawberry and melon, while today the synthetic versions are more likely to be used. Musk flavored Lifesavers and other candy can be found in Australia and New Zealand, and they taste pleasantly floral. Ambergris, a substance obtained from sperm whales, has a salty-sweet fragrance and is used in Egypt to flavor cigarettes, while in Morocco some traditional meat preparations include it in combinations with oud.
Robert May’s White Ambergriese Cakes:
“Take the purest refined sugar that can be got, beat it and searse it; then have six new laid eggs, and beat them into a froth, take the froth as it riseth, and drop it into the sugar by little and little, grinding it still round in a marble mortar and pestle, till it be throughly moistened, and wrought thin enough to drop on plates; then put in some ambergriese, a little civet, and some anniseeds well picked, then take your pie plates, wipe them, butter them, and drop the stuff on them with a spoon in form of round cakes, put them into a very mild oven and when you see them be hard and rise a little, take them out and keep them for use.”
Muskedines [Musk Candy]
“Take half a pound of refined sugar, being beaten and searsed, put into it two grains of musk, a grain of civet, two grains of ambergriese, and a thimble full of white orris powder, beat all these with gum-dragon steeped in rose-water; then roul it as thin as you can, and cut it into little lozenges with your iging-iron, and stow them in some warm oven or stove, then box them and keep them all the year” (p 202-203, in Filiquarian Publishing LLC facsimile edition.)
The Accomplisht Cook is available as a reprint from amazon.com.
Photograph: Jabeli, fragrant Indian funnel cakes © Bois de Jasmin. Although today jalebi is usually scented with rosewater and saffron, in the Mughal period (16th-18th centuries,) similar fried cakes were accented with musk and ambergris.