I recently had the pleasure of enjoying a delectable cupcake tray, which I scored at a bargain price at the end of voting day at the local school’s bake sale. The cupcakes where coated in a fantastically orange coloured butter cream icing and topped with rainbow sprinkles with the chocolatey surprise of milk choc chips in the centre. There was a sensational taste of musk in the icing, which took me straight back to my childhood memory to the land of lollypops and musk sticks and yes the horrifically politically incorrect ‘fags’ lolly cigarettes made by Rivera’s in the 1980’s. As I examined the hand written ingredients list on the package I noticed musk oil was used in the butter cream icing. What a surprise! I had no idea there was such a product.
I popped down to my local cake-decorating centre and asked the gentleman behind the counter if he sold musk oil. He was so surprised to hear that I was asking for it as he thought it was an old fashioned and acquired taste not liked by many these days, especially by a twenty-something. A little puzzled by his comment I purchased the small bottle of musk essence and it wasn’t until I went to bake with it that I pondered, where does musk oil actually come from?
I was slightly horrified to learn from our friends at Wikipedia that originally the aromatic substance came from glandular secretions from animals such as the musk deer and muskrat. As most of us know, musk has also been used in perfumery since ancient times and is considered one of the most expensive animal products in the world. What I also did not know is the name musk, originated from Sanskrit muská meaning ‘testicle’ eeeeew, suddenly the thought of offering testicle flavoured cupcakes wasn’t sounding very appealing for my birthday afternoon tea.
Since obtaining the oil from deer musk requires killing the endangered animal, today the trade quantity of the natural musk is controlled by CITES but illegal poaching and trading unfortunately continues. Until the late 19th century, natural musk was used extensively in perfumery until economic and ethical motives led to the adoption of synthetic musk, which thank goodness is now used almost exclusively. The synthetic musk fragrance used in perfumery today is sometimes called ‘white musk’ commonly found in cosmetics and laundry detergents to mask the smell of the detergent chemicals but even synthetic musk has been questioned to be carcinogenic.
I was relieved to learn that natural plant based musk oil could also be obtained. Musk pods are used in traditional Chinese medicine and in Ayurveda (Ancient Indian Medicine) musk is considered a life saving drug and used in various cardiac, mental and neurological disorders—wow what a mighty substance! I went on to learn that other plant sources include the musk flower, the muskwood of the Guianas and West Indies, musk seeds.
I was so fascinated by what I learnt about the origins of musk and proceeded to whip it into my butter cream hoping that I had purchased the plant based oil and not the synthetic version and especially not the ‘real McCoy’! The taste was oh so good upon the first bite of my delectable musk butter cream cupcakes! I had a little chuckle to myself when my dog Captain came over for a very enthusiastic sniff! The topic of the origins of musk also made for wonderful party conversation over a few birthday drinks at home—you can imagine where the conversation led too…but in your imagination it will remain 😉