Updated: Dec 24, 2020
When people imagine what the Romans ate, they often conjure images of roasted chickens smothered in spices, suckling pigs on giant platters, ostrich eggs for breakfast or some other exotic delicacy that showcased the power and influence of the Empire. Film and Pop-Culture reinforce these perceptions with portrayals of toga clad guests attending lavish banquets. What they don’t mention is that on almost every Roman table, and in almost every dish was a pungent fish sauce called garum. People’s surprise quickly turns to revulsion when they discover how this sauce was made, and given that it was used in everything from entrees to desserts, its popularity has no modern equivalent.
So, what is garum and why do people have such a visceral reaction to it?
To give it some context let’s first look at its origins. The Romans didn’t come up with the idea of garum. They did what they do best; take someone else’s idea of fish sauce and Romanise it. In this case, they took a popular fish sauce used by the ancient Greeks called gàros (used as early as the 5th c. BCE), made by fermenting small fish with salt and created their own version which became garum. While fermented fish might not sound too appealing it is worthwhile remembering that we do have modern equivalents like Vietnamese Nước Mắm, Thai Nam Pla and Worcestershire Sauce (yep it has fermented anchovies!) which impart the savouriness and depth of umami to a variety dishes. In fact Australian chef Adam Liaw maintains that dash of fish sauce can improve almost any dish.
Roman garum was an important way of preserving fish which spoiled easily and by using up the by-products of making salted fish. To make garum, vats were filled with fresh fish guts typically cleaned from whitebait, anchovies, mackerel, tuna, and others. They were placed between layers of salt and aromatic herbs and left in the sun for several months until they reached proper pungency. It was important to add just the right amount of salt—too little and the result would be a fetid mass, while too much would disrupt the fermentation process, changing the end result.
Garum quickly became embedded in Roman cuisine, in fact they liked it so much that factories known as cetariae sprang up all over the place in order to satisfy the Roman world’s craving for the fish sauce, although they were always located away from major populations because of the stench.
Garum was used on meats, fish, salads and even desserts, and was popular with every level of society. Garum remained to be a staple in the Roman diet which led to many historical figures like Pliny to say that garum was an "exquisite liquid" which was "so pleasant that it can be drunk” (Henesy). Not all Romans loved garum, however. The statesman Seneca described it as "poisonous fish" which "burns up with stomach with its putrefaction" (Henesy).
The process of making garum has been preserved through history by many significant written collections dating as far back as the 1st c. CE. Garum reappears later, in the 10th c. CE, in a Byzantine document called the Geoponika. The Geoponika was a collection of twenty books about all manners of agriculture that came out of Constantinople during a period known as the Byzantine Renaissance (from the late 9th c. to early 11th c. CE). It was created for the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and was a compilation of many classical and post-classical agricultural works, including an extremely easy to follow recipe for garum.
Another figure that talks about garum is Greek physician Galen (129-210 CE) in his commentary On the Properties of Foodstuffs discussing its uses in Roman cooking and his belief on its medicinal properties. Galen mentions garum being used as an ingredient in at least fifty-six recipes. The Romans believed that garum could be a remedy for many ailments including dysentery, stomach ulcers, and if injected the liquid could cure sciatica! (Pliny NH 31.43-44)
Now that we understand the origins of garum, lets delve into the murky and pungent process of making it. The following recipe has been inspired by the one in the Geoponika:
“if you wish to use the garum immediately, that is, not to insulate it, but to boil it, you are to do it in this manner: take some strong brine that is proved, so that an egg being put into it may swim (but if it sinks, it has not a sufficient quantity of salt); then throw the fish into the brine, in a new pot, and adding some origanum, set it over a good fire, until it boils, that is, until it begins to be a little diminished, then when it is cool, pour it into a strainer a second and a third time, until it comes out clear; and having stopped it, lay it by” - Geoponika, Book 20.46
1kg oily fish, whole (we used sardines, but mackerel, fresh anchovies, or sprat could also be used)
500g sea salt or kosher salt
2 ½ tablespoons oregano or other woody herbs
1 tablespoon dried mint
1900ml water, approximately 7 cups
Prep In advance: Rinse the fish under running water and leave them intact (don’t remove the innards, gills etc.)
1. Add the salt to the water and stir to dissolve. Depending on the salinity of your salt you may not need the full amount, so start gradually with about 3/4. Place an egg in the water and if the egg floats, stop adding salt.
2. Add the fish and then the oregano and mint to the water and place over medium-high heat and boil for 30 - 40 minutes. Every ten minutes or so, mash with a spoon to break up the fish.
Pro Tip: While it is boiling open a few windows and make use of those scented candles in the back of your cupboard - it’s going to smell a bit fishy and salty.
3. Once the liquid has reduced to about half the original amount, remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool. It will take at least an hour or so to properly cool down.
4. Once cooled, first pass the liquid through a colander and then strain again through a kitchen cloth or paper towel until the garum is free of particles.
Pro Tip: You will need to strain the liquid at least 7-8 times until you have a relatively clear yellow or amber-like colour depending on the fish you use. We used a range of different filters while starting the fish sauce.
5. Finally pour into sterile bottles and refrigerate.
The whole process took a few hours. The smell from boiling the fish in brine wasn’t a nice “at the beach” salt smell, it was more like being in the middle of a salty marsh. You might want to wear some plastic gloves if you don’t want your fingers smelling like footy socks during this process and the smell does tend to cling so probably not a good idea to use your favourite wooden spoon. Overall, it was a remarkably simple recipe, although tedious during the straining process. We will have to pick a nice Roman dish to try out our homemade garum… now where can we find ostrich eggs during isolation?
The Hellenic Museum would like to thank Museum Steward Ben Picciotto for offering his time and his home for this smelly archaeological experiment. Thanks must also be extended to Kelsey Baker-Picciotto who, despite her powerful aversion to fish and her inability to escape elsewhere, agreed to having garum made in her home.