Fishy sauces

"For we moderns, at least in the West, there’s a kind of lurid slow-down-for-the-car-crash appeal when reading about garum, an incredulity at recipe instructions for salting mashed fish intestines, letting them ferment in the sun and then collecting the juice that seeped through the bottom of the basket." The Garum Factory

They made garum in factories in Rome - well throughout the Roman empire, particularly around the Mediterranean coast. The one that everyone talked about was in Spain, although the picture below is a new discovery in Israel. As you can see, it's pretty big.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, it seems, used it - like Australians use tomato sauce. And it was shipped to its garrisons and its citizens throughout the empire. That mosaic at the head of the page is in Ostia and is advertising the shop behind it - most probably a purveyor of garum. It would have been stored in the amphora shown at the back of the mosaic.

These days you can buy a 100g bottle of the modern equivalent from Simon Johnson for $79!!! Or you can make your own. Read on.

Last night we watched a program Life and death in Herculaneum during which the presenter talked quite a lot about the food that the people of Herculaneum ate. And I guess the main point that he made was that from evidence they have found - basically the pooh in the sewers - they have surmised that even the 'ordinary' people ate a pretty varied diet that included a lot of fish. It was all very interesting if you like that sort of thing, so I thought I should do something inspired by it. But I've done Roman food before - a long time ago admittedly, so I needed to think of a slightly different angle.

I have two books in my cookery library of relevance one called Wild Blackberry Cobbler and Other Old-fashioned Recipes by Katie Stewart and Pamela Michael and the other The Art of Food by Claire Clifton and both of them, in their Roman sections went on at length about garum. Now I'm sure you have all heard of garum and we all probably use one version or another of an Asian fish sauce, but maybe you don't know how they made garum, how to make your own garum, what happened in between ancient Rome and Asian fish sauce and what is similar.

According to The National Geographic, this is how it was made:

"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 would result in putrefaction, while too much would disrupt the natural process of fermentation that gave the sauce its distinctive tang.

When the fermentation stage was finished, the malodorous mixture was strained. The resulting thick, amber liquid was the prized sauce garum, while the paste left behind was called allec. An inferior product to garum, allec was also widely traded."

I think the mosaic shown above, lovely though it is, is actually a modern mosaic done in the Roman style. Sorry. This is a genuine Roman amphora mosaic though.

Salted fish was also produced in these factories - the garum being made from the guts of the salted fish. But therein lies the first bit of disagreement that I came across. Whether indeed it was made from the guts or from the whole fish. Whichever it was the smell whilst it was 'maturing' in the sun would have been horrendous, which is why most of these factories were placed outside the towns. I'm guessing that the labour force was probably slaves who wouldn't have been able to object to the smell.

And yet Pliny the Elder "likened the smell of luxury garum to that of the finest of perfumes". Note - 'luxury garum' because, of course, there were many different grades of the stuff - like balsamic vinegar today for example or wine come to that.

What I found most interesting about the process was the addition of herbs to the mix. I don't know whether the Asians add herbs to their fish sauces, although I did see that although they are made in a very similar way they taste completely different. Indeed they taste different from each other. It's a bit like wine I guess. Same basic ingredients, quite different taste.

The Wild Blackberry Cobbler book sort of half quoted a Roman book called Geoponica, which described how to make it, and this is rather different from the National Geographic, because it calls for boiling the fish.

"Make a brine, test it's strength by floating an egg in it, then boiling fish such as sprats, mullet, mackerel or anchovies in the brine until it began to reduce. Flavourings of oregano and defrutum (reduced grape juice or must) were sometimes added, then the liquid was cooled, strained two or three times until it was clear, then sealed and stored away." Katie Stewart and Pamela Michael - Wild Blackberry Cobbler and Other Old-fashioned Recipes. via Geoponica

So how do you make your own? I mean we are into this these days aren't we? Making your own fermented stuff that is. Well my Wild Blackberry Cobbler book has a simplified recipe which it says will keep for weeks, although it also says that if you can't make it or get any, then just use salt. Which is interesting. I wonder why they didn't suggest Asian fish sauce. Maybe because it was written in 1984 in England and they didn't know about fish sauce back then? Surely not. Another site also gave a recipe with a rather nice photo shown below, but this seems to (a) be of the guts variety and (b) does not include any herbs.

Here's the recipe:


225g salt, 850ml water, 6 tinned anchovy fillets, 1 level teaspoon oregano, 6 tablespoons defrutum (optional) (reduced grape juice or must)

Stir the salt into the water until it dissolves. pour into a saucepan and add the anchovies, oregano and defrutum, or grape juice, if used. Bring to the boil, and cook briskly for 15 minutes. Cool, strain through muslin three or four times until the liquid is free of bits and fairly clear. When cold, bottle, or keep in a screw-topped jar.

Rather more like the Geoponica method I think - but then that was also for a home-made version. And not a lot of fermentation involved but I guess if it gives the right kind of taste it's worth a go. By the way I also saw, somewhere else that the proportion of salt to fish tends to vary between the ancient and modern - 15% salt in ancient times and 50% now.

And the taste is umami. Pure and simple.

"The Greeks liked their food plain and simple and, ... the true gourmet despised elaborate sauces and too many spices ... But the Romans ... delighted in food that combined many flavours. Roman food, as handed down to us in the rare descriptions and recipes that survive had a highly original and very clear, refreshingly aromatic flavour that was sharp and piquant, never cloying or heavy. Katie Stewart and Pamela Michael - Wild Blackberry Cobbler and Other Old-fashioned Recipes.

So what happened to it? Which is something we can ask of so many Roman things isn't it - like sewage, underfloor heating, concrete, baths and so much more. The main reason for its disappearance seems to be that salt began to be taxed, thus making it a very expensive condiment. So now out of the reach of the masses. But apparently it actually didn't disappear although it's production contracted to south-west Italy where it is still made today under the name of Colatura di alici And this is what you can buy for $79.00 a bottle. I saw it described as amber coloured and most of the bottles I found online were indeed the colour of the one on the left, but Gourmet Traveller (on the right) seemed to think it was much darker. So once again - same thing - totally different appearance and probably taste as well.

And the taste? Well according to Sasha Marx on the website Serious Eats:

"It's hard to describe how deeply, intensely delicious colatura is, but it's salty and tastes of the sea, but it's not fishy."

Fortunately - because of its expense - you don't need much. Serious Eats suggests a splash over vegetables, steak, in a Caesar salad or over fish, or they offer this delectable looking pasta: Spaghetti con la Colatura di Alici. It's sort of a variation on pasta con olio e aglio.

And these days you can even buy bottled garum. I don't know how much that costs, but I doubt that it's cheap.

And whilst we are still on the luxury end of the market, if you are lucky enough to live in Perth - particularly lucky at the moment I guess because you can still dine out there - splash out on a visit to Guy Grossi's latest venture at the Westin Hotel - his restaurant which is aptly called Garum.

The website says:

"Our food is focused on the ideals of Roman cooking, its techniques and history while highlighting the richness of Western Australian produce.  An exploration of ancient Roman cooking with contemporary consideration."

How apt thought I with respect to the move from ever Roman's favourite condiment to high-class cuisine at high prices.

And before I leave the notion of what happened to garum I should mention Worcestershire sauce which also contains fermented anchovies. Different taste - same concept. Rotting fish. The inference being that if you rot them long enough the taste disappears.

But what did the Romans actually do with it and what could you have a go at yourself?

And here we turn to Apicius and his cookbook De Re Coquinaria written some time in the first century AD. I am not at all sure whether this is really he - I found lots of versions of this that had his name on it, but no reference to where it came from, so I'm a bit suspicious.

The simplest recipe I found was for 'Fish cooked in its own juice'. It doesn't actually include garum, but does have vinegar. Maybe you could replace the vinegar with garum. Here is the original recipe - maddeningly imprecise really:

"Prepare the fish carefully. Put in a mortar salt and coriander seed: pound. Roll the fish in this, place it in a pan, cover and seal, and cook in the oven. When it is cooked remove. Sprinkle with very strong vinegar and serve."

Which reminds me of a couple of things I have learnt both from yesterday's TV program and today's browsing, about the eating habits of the ordinary person. They found in the pooh lots of different vegetables, and herbs - I remember fennel and coriander and cumin being mentioned a fair bit. Lovage - a herb with a celery like taste - seems to have been used a lot. So it seems that contrary to some opinions the poor were not just eating porridge and bread. Also the poor did not cook in their tenement buildings for fear of setting them on fire, but they would take food to the baker to be cooked. A tradition found in many European peasant societies.

But back to Apicius. On the left is an excerpt from a more modern version of his book which describes a dish of pork which the authors of Wild Blackberry Cobbler describe as:

"So delicious that if you cook no other Roman recipe we recommend you try this one. Pork roasted any other way will afterwards seem dull in comparison."

I won't give the modernised version here but it's called Porcellum Aenococtum and can be found online I think.

I will give you this one though - for fish having "a taste of vinaigrette and fresh greenery". The picture is from online somewhere and it's not a particularly good picture, but it probably gives an idea. It's the only one I could find.


4 small Dover sole or about 680g filleted sole, 3 tablespoons (45ml) olive oil, 2 teaspoons (10ml) garum, 284 ml dry white wine, 2 tablespoons fresh lovage leaves, chopped, or chopped celery stems and leaves, 2 teaspoons (10ml) fresh or 1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) dried oregano, freshly milled black pepper, 1 large or 2 small eggs

Clean and skin the soles if whole fish are used. Place the fish in a shallow saucepan with the oil, garam and wine. Cover and poach gently for 10-15 minutes until the fish is cooked, then remove from the heat.

Put the lovage, oregano and pepper into a bowl with 3 tablespoons of the liquid in which the fish has cooked. Stir in the lightly mixed egg. Slowly pour this mixture over the fish in the pan. Return the pan to a low heat and heat slowly, stirring occasionally to keep the sauce smooth. Lift the fish onto a hot serving dish and spoon over the sauce. Sprinkle with a little freshly milled pepper and serve hot.

Or you can just stick with fish sauce from the supermarket. I don't think you are going to find garum or colatura di alici in the supermarket anytime soon. I wonder whether you can get them in a supermarket in Italy?


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