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Garum: the bizzarre sauce that tells the story of Ancient Rome.

4 min read

Probably romans needed a recharge after a rousing chariot race, dining with at least one food seasoned with this popular fermented fish sauce known as garum. The original Roman Garum was not an appetizing condiment. Lets face it: to the average stomach of modern man, there can be few things more disgusting than the thought of a spatter of fermented fish guts over your roast, which is basically what garum was. Even for the entrails-loving Romans, the smell of garum during the process of fermentation was said to be so terrible that the common folk were actually outlawed from making it in their own homes. However, it was beloved by all from the loftiest courts to the lowliest hovels!
So, Garum is a salty sauce of fish entrails used by the Romans. They were really fond of it and used it in many ways. The term is of uncertain origin and is thought to derive from the Greek name “garos” or “garon” (γάρον), a fish used as a condiment in Greece.

From the entrails of the fish the “liquamen” was obtained. Slaves and laborers made the aromatic fish sauce by chopping up whole fish, including their guts, and tossing them into large clay pots with amounts varied of salt. The concoctions were then left to ferment for at least nine months under the hot Mediterranean sun while halophilic, or salt-loving, bacteria from the fish’s guts helped break down the flesh.

According to The Byzantine manual Geōponika: Agricultural pursuits, Vol. II of 10th century, translated from the Greek: “What is called liquamen is thus made: the intestines of fish are thrown into a vessel, and are salted; and small fish, especially atherinae, or small mullets, or maenae, or lycostomi, or any small fish, are all salted in the same manner; and they are seasoned in the sun, and frequently turned; and when they have been seasoned in the heat, the garum is thus taken from them. A small basket of close texture is laid in the vessel filled with the small fish already mentioned, and the garum will flow into the basket; and they take up what has been percolated through the basket, which is called liquamen; and the remainder of the feculence is made into allec.

Some say it was similar to anchovy paste, others to salted anchovy brine liquid, or to Nuoc Mam, a fish sauce still used in Vietnam. Another similarity could be that with surströmming, a typical dish of Swedish cuisine, prepared by fermentation of Baltic herring (with a really “special” smell).

Apparently the most prized and expensive Garum was the mackerel produced in Carthage Spartaria, today’s Cartagena in Spain. Each port had its own traditional recipe, but by the time of Augustus, Romans considered the best to be garum from Cartagena and Gades in Baetica. This product was called garum sociorum, “garum of the allies”.
The garum of Lusitania (in present-day Portugal) was also highly prized in Rome, and was shipped directly from the harbour of Lacobriga (Lagos). Fossae Marianae in southern Gaul, located on the southern tip of present-day France, served as a distribution hub for Western Europe, including Gaul, Germania, and Roman Britain.
Production of garum was also key to the economy of Pompeii. The factories where garum was produced in Pompeii have not been uncovered, perhaps indicating that they lay outside the walls of the city. However, archeologists were able to use garum remains at this site to more accurately date Vesuvius’s eruption.
The production of garum created such unpleasant smells that factories were generally relegated to the outskirts of cities. The garum had been made entirely of bogues, fish that congregate in the summer months.

Ruins of a garum factory in Baelo Claudia in Spain.

Apicio, in the “De re coquinaria”, mentions the Garum in many different dishes. It was such a common dish that it didn’t mention the recipe. It is thanks to Pliny the Elder who prized the “exquisite liquid”, Martial, Petronius, Columella and other authors that we know a few more details about one of the most widespread condiments of the Roman Empire.

Seneca, for example, in a letter to Lucilius, throwing his arrows against food excesses, also rages against the Garum, even though his family was from Baetian Corduba, saying that:
Do you not realize that garum sociorum, that expensive bloody mass of decayed fish, consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction?
— Seneca, Epistle 95.

And though authentic garum isn’t sold on the market today, one descendant, called in italian “colatura di alici”, remains popular in southern Italy and various chefs have tried their hand at ancient recipes. Ken Albala, a food historian, recreated a garum recipe found in a 10th-century agricultural text. He described the result as “a riot of flavors and textures” and that the fermentation process resulted in a sweet aroma.

Text in Collaboration: Danijel and Leo. @ Random-Times.com
Images from web.

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