It was a bright clear day 2000 odd years ago when an unknown person was walking through the woods when suddenly a bush burst into flames and the voice of Sir David Attenborough could be heard:
“Sniff them and vanilla will be made.”
This unknown person was understandably confused. “Sniff what?”
A bright light shone and illuminated a startled beaver.
“The European beaver, Castor Fiber, is commonly found in rivers and streams and lives off grasses and woody plants,” Sir Attenborough said helpfully. “Go on, sniff his bum.”
And he did. And it was good.
A heavenly, fruity scent filled his nostrils, a scent of honey and anise mixed with the leathery smell of a refined gentleman’s library. Birds started singing and Pocahontas ran by throwing petals around as Sir Attenborough’s voice discussed the life of the beaver.
The beaver managed to free itself and staggered off, looking pissed off and slightly ruffled.
On that joyful, scent filled day, castoreum was discovered.
Castoreum is from the North American and European beaver. It’s a scent gland found somewhere near the beaver’s rear end and is used for marking its territory in a heavenly way.
Who doesn’t enjoy a good smell? I can see Joanne, preparing for a night out, going to her dressing table and dabbing a beaver on each wrist.
Since the discovery of castoreum, it’s been used as vanilla, strawberry and other food flavouring, in medicines, tinctures and in perfumes. Though these days it’s mostly used as a food flavouring and in perfumes – and even then its use isn’t common since it’s messy and tricky to obtain.
I’m not surprised.
I have an image of a beaver farmer going out into the pasture where beavers roam. He herds them into the milking shed, sits on a stool and places a very tiny milk pail under the beaver’s rump.
I wish I could draw just so that I could paint that picture. Sadly, my drawing skills only go as far as nude models.
If anyone doubts the popularity of the beaver’s sac, know this: Sir Sniffs-A-Lot was drawn to the scent of the beaver and featured it in his song Beaver Got Extract:
I like big beavers and I can not lie
You other rodents can’t deny
That when a beaver walks in with an itty bitty gland
And it’s bum right in your face
You get sprung, wanna pull out your cream puff
‘Cause you notice that vanillas’ stuffed
Deep in the glands its wearing
I’m hooked and I can’t stop sniffing…
In reality, not everyone is excited by the thought of possibly consuming something that comes out of the behind of an animal. While it’s listed as a safe and natural flavouring, a quick search of the internet will show that there are those disgusted by the thought. I can’t blame them, except you know… milk.
But rest easy! The likelihood of finding castoreum in your next sweet treat is minimal, with roughly only 132kg produced yearly.
I would offer to taste test something with castoreum and compare it to something without. In fact, I would have happily written up a review on it. I’m guessing there isn’t much of a difference. But I’ve decided against it because I’m worried about how castoreum is harvested – some sites say the beaver is hunted, others say that the beaver gets zonked out during the extraction.
I think beavers would like at least one day to go by without someone manhandling them to get a sniff.
Won’t somebody think of the beaver farmers and their tiny, tiny milk pails?!!
Feel free to comment with as many beaver and wood jokes as you like. I believe the occasion calls for it.
Resources and if you want to brush up on your beaver bum facts:
Does Beaver Tush Flavor Your Strawberry Shortcake? We Go Myth Busting
Beaver Butts Emit Goo Used for Vanilla Flavoring
Wikipedia – Castoreum
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species