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Food Fermentation – Garum: The Ancient Roman Condiment

Understanding Spices

Ferments have been around for thousands of years. It started out as a necessity, a way to preserve food for longer. Many cultures have fermented food in their culinary heritage, from Korean kimchi and Japanese natto (black beans), to German sauerkraut and West African garri. Today, fermentation is simply a process we enjoy for the flavours it adds to food.

Fish sauce is that flavourful, umami-rich seasoning which gives East and Southeast Asian cooking their distinctive taste. But did you know that this fermented condiment actually has a long history in Europe too? In fact, it dates all the way back to the Roman Empire where it was called ‘garum’.

Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino cited that there are mentions of garum in Roman literature dating back to the 3rd and 4th century B.C. and remains of garum factories from an even earlier date. In fact, fish bones found at a garum factory in Pompeii helped to pinpoint an even more accurate date of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption. Garum was very popular throughout the Roman Empire and it wasn’t just for the upper class either. Just like wine, it’s price ranged from extremely cheap to extremely expensive.

Garum was part of a thriving, pan-European economy and this delicious sauce was transported over land through western Europe, even reaching as far as Hadrian’s Wall. It was mass produced in factories known as cetariae. As the stench was quite strong, the factories had to be built outside of city centres, so they would generally be built by the coast – this also ensured easy access to the freshest fish. Salted fish was also produced in the cetariae, which worked well as the by-products of the salted fish were used for the garum making process. There are remains of these garum factories which have even been uncovered from Northern Africa to the Iberian coast in Spain and Portugal.

Similar to the way Asian fish sauces are made, garum was produced by filling vats with innards from anchovies, whitebait, mackerel, tuna and others. The innards were layered with salt and fresh herbs before being fermented for up to three months until pungent. Once the fermentation process was complete, the mixture was pressed with stones to extract the thick, dark liquid. The paste that was left behind was called allec, and although it wasn’t as highly valued as garum, it was still widely used.

Garum was used as an alternative to salt, or to make dips and sauces when mixed with other ingredients like wine, honey, vinegar, herbs, pepper and oil. It was even used as a treatment to cure ulcers and dysentery and its high protein content was regarded as an appetite stimulator for recovering patients.

When the Roman Empire fell, garum production ceased to exist. However, a very close relative is still produced today in the region of Campania in southwestern Italy. Colatura di alici is made from salt and anchovies and left to ferment for weeks until the liquid can be extracted. It’s used as a condiment rather than a cooking ingredient, just like how it was used back in Ancient Rome. You can find colatura di alici at certain food shops online – here’s a recipe for a tasty spaghetti alla colatura.

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