Garum - ancient roman's ketchup

2:37 PM

The best thing you never heard of is called colatura di alici, or garum, its ancient name.

Garum and other similar fish-based sauces were the ketchup of the ancient world, mass produced in factories by the Romans, and sprinkled on anything savory. They usually made several versions: a dark-colored table condiment that was high in protein, a cooking sauce similar to Thai and Vietnamese fish sauces (sometimes called liquamen by historians, though often grouped together with garum), and a milder version called muria.

left: Mosaic depicting a "Flower of Garum" jug with a titulus reading "from the workshop of [the garum importer Aulus Umbricius] Scaurus

Incongruously, the earliest description of how garum was produced comes at the end of the Astronomica, a treatise on astrology written by Manilius in the first century AD. There, he relates how fishermen processed their catch of tuna, cutting up the fish, flavoring the choicest part of the blood with salt so as to impart "a relish to the palate" (garum; here it seems that the blood alone was used) and using the viscera and the other pieces of the decaying carcass to provide "a condiment of general use" (allec). Smaller fish, which usually would be discarded, were fermented in dolia, where "their inward parts melt and issue forth as a stream of decomposition" (liquamen) (V.667-681). Here, it would seem that garum and liquamen were produced differently. Pliny, however, describes garum as "consisting of the guts of fish and the other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse; these are soaked in salt, so that garum is really liquor from the putrefaction of these matters" (Natural History, XXXI.93). As can be seen, it is not always clear whether garum was made from the blood of the fish, the blood and viscera, or the flesh, itself—or even the exact process.


Left: carbonized amphora with Garum (Pompeii)

The most detailed description of garum is from the Geoponica (XX.46). The preparation involves adding a quantity of salt (two sextarii to one modius, 1:8, this is the only recipe to provide a ratio) to the entrails of small fish, such as mullets, sprats, or anchovies. The mixture then was allowed to ferment or macerate in the sun for several months, the liquamen drawn off and strained and used as a condiment or seasoning, the feculent remainder made into allec. (Frustratingly, the composition of garum begins with a description of how liquamen is made: garum is said to strain into the basket, but then the percolated liquid is also called liquamen.) A quicker means of preparation simply was to boil a fish in strong brine, add some origanum (oregano) and possibly some sapa, and strain until clear. (Galen says that oregano moderates the taste of an oily, watery fish such as the gray mullet, III.24.) The best garum, however, was made from the viscera of tuna, together with the blood, juices, and gills, salted and allowed to ferment for two months. This concoction was called haimation ("bloody"). Wine, herbs, and spices also could be added.

Here is the recipe:

Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.


The manufacture and export of garum was an element of the prosperity of coastal Greek emporia from the Ligurian coast of Gaul to the coast of Hispania Baetica, and perhaps an impetus for Roman penetration of these coastal regions.= In the ruins of Pompeii, jars were even found containing kosher garum,= suggesting an equal popularity among Roman Jews. 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 ruins of a garum factory remain at the Baetian site of Baelo Claudia (in present-day Tarifa) and Carteia (San Roque). Garum was a major export product from Hispania to Rome, and gained the towns a certain amount of prestige. The garum of Lusitania (in present-day Portugal) was also highly prized in Rome, and was shipped directly from the harbour of Lacobriga (Lagos). A former Roman garum factory can be visited in the Baixa area of central Lisbon.= 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.




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