Friday Food Findings: Ancient Rome’s Finest Sauce

A look at the ingredients.
A look at the ingredients. (Source)

Laws are like sausages. It’s best that people not see how they are made…

Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898)

Quick, think of something to do with the ancient Romans and their cuisine. Did you think maybe of orgies, of wild, drunken revelry, and of people inducing vomiting after a few courses so they could go back and eat some more?

(That last is a myth, by the way; some modern people saw the Latin word ‘vomitorium’ and thought it was like an auditorium for puking. It’s not; it’s a corridor leading out from a building, where the building ‘vomits’ the people.)

If you did, well, you are right in a way. The wealthy, the one percent of Rome, certainly did their share of debauchery. The other ninety-nine percent, meanwhile, lived on flatbreads and porridge, and on a very good day some sausage. But there is something that one hundred percent of Romans had with their food, and knowing about it adds a new layer to what Rome must have been like – a new, pungent layer, which may be surprisingly familiar to Singaporeans.

Enter garum.

Modern fish sauce making. Garum would have been similar. (Source)
Modern fish sauce making. Garum would have been similar. (Source)

The Remains of the Catch

Today, Southeast Asia is the undisputed heartland of fermented seafood, distilling the sea all around us into our cooking. Vietnamese and Thai alike use fish sauce in just about everything, a base for the intense flavours in their cooking; Indonesian and Malay cuisine, heavily reliant on intense herbs and searing chilies, counterbalances them with the mighty, pelagic aroma of belacan made from shrimp.

But we are not the first to come up with this idea of dealing with seafood. Half the world away, the Romans had much the same idea, making use of the abundant seafood from the Mediterranean. Like so many culinary masterpieces, garum – which is also known as liquamen – sprang from necessity; its ingredients are made either from small fish, too troublesome to eat by themselves, or from the innards and trimmings of big fish. A 10th century text, the Geoponika, describes one process by which it could be 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.

This was not the only way, though; there are also methods which involve cooking, and methods which involve layering fish with salt in a vat. Still, the idea is not all that different from how we make fish sauce today – salt fish, break down its proteins, and skim off the clear liquid. Nonetheless there are some differences between what the Romans made and what is prevalent in Southeast Asia, in terms of the ingredients; for instance, it seems that the Romans used a lot less salt for their sauce, and also made use of herbs like oregano and dill.

The sauce is everywhere in this. (Source)
The sauce is everywhere in this. (Source)

An Imperial Condiment

As we know, fish sauce is quite an acquired taste, or rather an acquired scent – its whiff is lively, almost aggressive, with the notes of animals and decay. We aren’t sure when the Romans first began acquiring a liking for garum, though according to them it was the Greeks who began making it.

But we do know, from all sorts of indications, that the Romans loved the stuff. People found all sorts of ways to combine garum with other ingredients, making complex sauces for their cookery; so we get oenogarum (wine-garum), oxygarum (vinegar), and even melligarum (honey). The Apicius, a late Roman cookbook, mentions liquamen some 200 times, using it with fish, red meat, birds and even desserts; if it was worth cooking, it was worth seasoning with liquamen. You can even drink garum, diluted with water.

This widespread demand led to a thriving industry all around the coasts of the Mediterranean. Garum factories, owing to the stench of fermentation, were often sited outside the city walls; remains of these factories have been found throughout Spain, Portugal and Italy. Whole towns revolved around the making of garum, including Pompeii. The industry even catered for special dietary needs; there is evidence that kosher garum was made specifically for the Empire’s Jewish community.

Commonly used ingredients often end up with many versions, appealing to different markets, and garum is no exception. Referring to the recipe above, the allec – which is made from the goo left over from garum production – is a cheap product, used by the poor for seasoning their porridge. Liquamen, on the other hand, is divided into many grades based on their ingredients and the area of production, in the same way we talk about whiskey distilleries or the terroirs of wine. So liquamen made with small fish is mid-market, usual stuff, but that made with the innards of tuna is high grade stuff.

And as for the really top-quality stuff, well, there’s garum sociorum, ‘the garum of the allies’ – amber in colour, made with mackerel from the towns of Cartagena and Gades (Cadiz) in Hispania Baetica (southern Spain). This stuff will cost you – a jar of 6 litres of garum sociorum can cost 1,000 sesterces. For comparison, a flask of drinkable wine costs 1 sestertius, and a Roman soldier gets paid 1,200 sesterces a year.

A Pungent Companion

The qualities of garum was commented upon by many Roman writers. Martial, one of the first satirists who was known for his poems brutally making fun of the rich and powerful in Rome, congratulated one of his friends for his romantic endurance; the friend was willing to flirt with a girl who had had six helpings of garum. How desperate do you have to be to kiss that, eh?

Slightly more serious (and grumpier) was Seneca, philosopher and staunch defender of Rome’s traditional values. To him, garum sociorum – the top-quality stuff – was merely the ‘overpriced guts of rotting fish’, and something which ‘consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction’. Amusingly enough, Seneca was born in southern Spain, where garum was one of the pillars of the local economy.

Yet garum’s popularity continued for centuries, and with good reason too. Made from fermented fish, the sauce does a lot more good for its consumers than its smell would suggest; it is a rich brew of amino acids, vitamins and minerals, available to even the poorest in the Empire. Even after the fall of Rome, garum persisted in the cuisine of the Byzantine Empire; there, it was joined with a similar fermentation product made from barley, called murri. (It was probably easier to find barley than fish up in the mountains of Anatolia.)

Indeed, the descendants of garum have never really left Italian cuisine, persisting in certain regions. In Naples, an anchovy sauce known as colatura d’alici is probably the most direct descendant, and it definitely looks like nam pla or nuoc mam – a rich, amber and gold fluid. Maybe, with the gradual popularity of Southeast Asian cuisine around the world, the taste of fermented fish will become more acceptable, and the Italians will look back on their fish sauce with greater interest. Meanwhile, garum is a fascinating window into an ancient society that it supported.

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