Ambergris is a greyish waxy substance consisting mainly of cholesterol secreted by the intestinal tract of the sperm whale (Physeter catodon) and often found floating in the sea. It is used in the manufacture of perfumes.
An important trade commodity before 1000AD in Northwest Africa and by the 13th Century AD Marco Polo reported in his 'Travels' that ambergris could be found on the islands of Zanzibar and Socotra, but he gave no indication of its use. However, later writers suggest it was an aphrodisiac, as does Boswell in his 'Dissertatio Inauguralis de Ambra' in which he says, "three grains will produce a marked acceleration of the pulse". Zactus Lusitanus in his 'Plaxus Medica Admiranda', mentions ambergris-based lozenges called cachunde which were sold throughout Europe. Alexander Pope, writing in 1720, remarked: "Praise is like ambergris; a little whiff of it by snatches is very agreeable; but when a man holds a whole lump of it to his nose, it is a stink and strikes you down".
The Chinese were first to use ambergris as spice. Throughout the Middle Ages it was used in ragoûts, pies, custards and jams (US: jelly). Richelieu was fond of ambergris pastilles. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, small quantities or tinctures were put in tea, coffee or hot chocolate as a love-philtre. Seraglio Pastilles also contained ambergris and were sold in 19th Century Paris.