If it is true, as Mike Myers suggests, that most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare, what are we to make of the foundations of perfumery?
We are, after all, talking some pretty rank stuff – extrusions from the anal glands of feral animals, digestive aids of over-sized ocean dwelling mammals. Not the sort of thing the average person is likely to be on the lookout for when trying to attract the opposite sex. Whatever possessed early man to have a go at some of this stuff? Cruel jokes are all I can figure. Imagine for a moment the local bad lads in a seaside town in medieval times having some sport with the village idiot and suggesting he go roll in some of that nice musk deer corpse on the edge of town, or cover himself in some washed up ambergris.*
Joke was on them a few days later when the village idiot had a girl on each arm and several trailing behind asking if he would prefer cider, mead, or me?
Who’s stinky now?
Even more unlikely is civet, which the Dutch had to go half way around the world to get a hold of. Not their initial aim, of course, which raises the question how they got into that particular trade. Perhaps the locals thought they were village idiots? (One is reminded of Margaret Mead who baffled the natives with her incessant obsession with sex, and who got her leg good and rightly pulled by her bemused Samoan hosts.)
Or perhaps the locals simply viewed them as unwelcome guests. Why else suggest that the extract of the anal glands of the rather cranky civet cat is just the thing to “get with the ladies”? The very best stuff was said to come from especially agitated cats, and special cages were built to keep them as still as possible. As to harvesting – let’s just say that spoons were involved and leave it at that. The animals had reason to be agitated.**
Nature’s practical joke comes in the fact that things change over time, and those things that are at first appalling can settle down into acceptable and even pleasant states. The frankly fecal ambergris transmogrifies to a more pine-y and even tobacco-y scent as it bobbles on the water, interacting with sun and salt, turning from white to gray – so-called gray amber, figuratively if not literally.
There are those who are impatient for perfume and ingest the stuff directly, albeit in conjunction with other milk and honey, as a less commercial substitute for Viagra. It can fetch a good price, or so I understand. Well, that sort of product usually does, doesn’t it?
In the same vein, perhaps it’s no surprise then that the word “musk” should derive from the Sanskrit for testicle. It was taken from Musk deer in the old days, which presumably were even less tractable than civet cats. The standard procedure was to kill the animal. which is one reason the poor creatures are endangered. Other sources for the stuff is the muskrat, one of the surprise gifts of North America. Also musk turtles, musk ducks, musk shrew, musks beetles - you will have detected the pattern here.
Synthetics and animal rights groups are putting the kibosh on civet cultivation, which is probably a relief for both animal and harvester. Same holds true for ambergris. America prohibits the sale of whale and whale byproducts, and makes no distinction between ambergris that has been pulled from slaughtered whales and that which has washed up on shore by less violent means. Other countries are not so strict about this absolute rarity.
There are said to be elements of nature that simply cannot be replicated in the laboratory, at least to the highly sensitive. That is to say, hidden from normal people, just as music is hidden to the tone-deaf or traffic lights to the color blind. Fair enough, I suppose, though as a general principle, put me down as opposed to processes that involve abusing animals with spoons. I mean to say, a joke’s a joke, but there are limits, even if the village idiot does get his own back on the frat boys.
*Well, okay, truth is, it takes a while for the fresh stuff to mellow out and become attractive to the ladies, or anyone else, for that matter, but you get the idea.
** Speaking of food-based on bets with a civet (aka luwak) connection, check out the real deal on kopi luwak.