Please welcome Dora Levy Mossanen, author of The Last Romanov!

by Dora Levy Mossanen

I’m attracted to excess and decadence, to historical periods that transform our political landscapes, to all types of supernatural phenomena. What shall I say? I’m strange in that way. All these elements make their appearance in my latest novel, The Last Romanov, but since we are short of time, I’d like to share with you a special wonder I came across during my research. The magical ambergris! Darya, my protagonist, cherishes ambergris because it’s a conduit to her past and it possesses healing and calming properties. The Chinese call it “dragon spittle fragrance,” evoking images of perfumed dragons guarding jewel-filled caves.

Throughout history, all the way back to ancient Egypt, ambergris was used to cure all kinds of ailments, from a simple headache to hysteria and impotence. Nowadays, ambergris is used as a fixative in expensive perfumes to enhance and prolong the scent. But since it has become rare and costly, most perfumeries can’t afford it any longer. So, a chemical derivative that attempts to mimic the properties of ambergris is more commonly used today.

I was surprised to learn that this valuable substance is nothing more than the vomit or excrement of sperm whales. Yes, it’s true. It’s normal for the poor animals to suffer indigestion after they dine on hard-beaked squids that are abrasive to the intestines and can cause massive tummy aches. At such times, the thunderous belching of whales can be heard miles away. Since no one has had the fortune, or misfortune, of witnessing a sperm whale in the throes of pain and while ridding itself of the contents of its stomach, the verdict is still out as to which side of the animal ambergris expelled from. What’s certain is that this substance, which is found in gray rock-like lumps washed up on tropical seashores and which can weigh up to hundreds of pounds, stinks when first excreted. So why is it so valuable?

Ambergris ages well. In that way, it resembles fine wine, certain Isfahan carpets, and a rare breed of women such as my hundred-and-four-year-old, Darya Borisovna. Once a chunk of ambergris has had a chance to float in the seas and oceans, and be cured by air, sun and saltwater, its black color changes to a rich variegated gray and the foul smell to a tantalizing aroma that has encouraged many a myth. The longer ambergris has a chance to age during its long journey across the seas and oceans, the sweeter its aroma and the more valuable it becomes.

Although no longer consumed for medicinal purposes or as a spice as it once was in Ancient Egypt and the East, or carried around to ward off the plague and other contagious diseases as it was during the Black Death in Europe, ambergris has not lost its mystique or value in the modern marketplace.

The origin and history of ambergris and its complex scent—sweet and earthy, powdery, animalistic, with notes of musk and marine—has been a gift to my imagination and I hope it will stir yours, too.

Read our review of The Last Romanov