Terry holds an ice cream cone with stink waves curling above it. A soft serve machine that looks like a whale is next to him.

Ambergris Ice Cream

England, circa 1660s CE

  • 3 pints of the best cream
  • 4 lbs. of ice, cubed
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • ambergris, to taste

Slowly bring three pints of the best cream to a low boil.

Stir in sugar until dissolved. Add in ambergris to taste.

Remove from heat and let cream come to room temperature. Put cooled cream into a box of silver or tin.

Place silver box of cream in a larger tub and pile ice all around the sides. Cover with lid ensuring all sides of the cream are surrounded by ice. Let stand for two hours.

When cream is thoroughly frozen, scoop and enjoy.

The first known recipe for ice cream contained ambergris; a waxy gray or black substance from the intestines of sperm whales. Ambergris passes when the whale takes a crap and eventually chunks of it float to the shore.

Scientists don't know exactly what the function of ambergris is. Sperm whales are the only animal that produce it, and only by about 1% of them even do.

There are a few theories floating around (🥁) about what's going on. Could be a protectant that forms around sharp objects the whale's eaten. Could be the result of a blockage from intestinal worms. No one is quite sure.

Regardless, a substance like this obviously belongs in desserts. What with it's pungent, musky, fecal smell and smooth buttery texture, ambergris is a natural addition to a sweet treat like ice cream.

That's what Lady Anne Fanshawe of England thought, anyway. Her 1665 recipe for "Icy Cream" is the first known recorded recipe for ice cream in Europe. She flavored this dessert with orange flower water, mace, or  yeah, ambergris.

Hats off to Historical Gastronomist Sarah Lohman, who actually made this recipe back in 2013. Her experience is detailed on her awesome blog fourpoundsflour.com and definitely worth a read.

And the fun didn't stop at ice cream. Ambergris was used by folks in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (as well as ancient Egypt and China for that matter) for all sorts of consumer products.

For more punch on the scent, it was added to perfume. Dollop some in your eggs like King Charles II. Stir it in your coffee like the Europeans. Mix it in a high end, fancy cocktail like the Australians. Why not?

Though outlawed in the United States and super rare everywhere else, people still swear by this magical funky snot-poop ball from the sea.

Because when musk is a must, reach for ambergris.

History Shapes Needs Your Support!

History Shapes is a reader-supported, independent cartoon and comic series. If you get your kicks from that sorta thing, and are able, please consider joining The History Shapes Club.

For just $5 a month you can help with research, writing, drawing, and all the work that goes into producing cartoons just like this one. There are a handful of perks, to boot. It's like PBS, but for weird history cartoons.

(Unable to join but still want to help? Send this cartoon to a friend!)