Ambergris in Your Cup

The Daily Grind—Understanding Your Habit
Café: An Interview Magazine (Sydney) April/May 1995

By Dr. Richard Cytowic

Java drinkers are equally fond of chocolate, it seems. And why not? The caffeine of coffee and the xanthine of chocolate belong to the same chemical family of stimulants. The famous gastronome Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) hailed chocolate as “one of the most effective restoratives.” Java hounds looking for a new jolt might seek a cup of either cafe or chocolat ambre.

According to Brillat-Savarin, “all those who have to work when they might be sleeping, men of wit who feel temporarily deprived of their intellectual powers, those who find the weather oppressive, time dragging, the atmosphere depressing; those who are tormented by some preoccupation which deprives them of the liberty of thought; let all such men imbibe a half-litre of chocolat ambre, using 60 to 70 grains of amber per half-kilo, and they will be amazed.”

A grain is one-twentieth of a gram, and he refers to amber gris—the waxy, pleasant-smelling intestinal concretion of the sperm whale rather than the resinous, yellow tree-amber that is entirely different. Larousse Gastronomique laments that “such chocolate no longer exists.” It’s a pity that ambergris figures only as a memory in confectionery and perfumery today. Hunting some down for your own taste buds is well worth the effort, however. Whether added to coffee or chocolate, I can attest to its rewarding effects and its abiding aroma that mysteriously lingers through the day. Once savored, its bouquet is forever seared in one’s memory.

In both Magisteres Restaurants and Meditation VI, Brillat-Savarin praises ambergris chocolate as the “chocolate of the afflicted. I knew that Marshal Richelieu, of glorious memory,” he writes, “constantly chewed ambergris lozenges; as for myself, when I get one of those days when the weight of age makes itself felt—a painful thought—or when one feels oppressed by an unknown force, I add a knob of ambergris the size of a bean, pounded with sugar, to a strong cup of chocolate, and I always find my condition improving marvelously.”

Whither such sagacity? Perhaps we’ll rediscover some of it in our favorite cafes.