Nothing fishy here



New experiment to recreate Garum underway.


Garum was the Roman ketchup and mustard, the ubiquitous fish sauce that the empire’s foodies adored. Shipwrecks off southern France and northwest Italy have yielded fish sauce amphorae dating to as early as the 5th century BC, but it was probably around long before that. Perceptive consumers could buy many flavours, which travelled in wooden boxes and leather bags over long distances, far into northern Europe.


There was good money in garum. Aulus Umbricus Scaurus prospered greatly in Pompeii during the 1st century AD. His garum factories based outside the city produced four varieties. His best one was mild and very expensive, being manufactured from mackerel. Scaurus lived off the proceeds in fine style in a house overlooking the sea.


Fish sauce was a major industry. One major processing plant operated at Troia what is now south-western Portugal, with vats and saltworks extending over 4km. All the raw materials for garum could be obtained on the sandy peninsula where the factory lay. More than 200 tanks and 29 salting facilities could produce 1.4 litres of garum, probably twice as much between the 1st and 5thcenturies AD.


It was in Portugal that a group of archaeologists, fish experts, a skilled chef, and others gathered in May 2021, in an ambitious experimental archaeology project to recreate garum. The research involved close cooperation with a prominent Lisbon restaurant, Can the Can. The team acquired 400 kilograms of sardines, 150 kilograms of sea salt, and 350 litres of seawater. They began by gutting the sardines, then threw them into nearby ancient stone vats (lined with plastic to mitigate their cracked walls), and covered them with a brine consisting of salt and seawater. The gradual decay of the fish in the brine produces the robust garum flavour. Fermentation proceeds slowly and it will not be until September that taste tests will be possible. So far, the process is going smoothly. Stay tuned to this space for the results. The past will literally come alive!





Image: A mosaic depicting a ‘Flower of Garum’ jug with a titulus reading ‘from the workshop of the garum importer Aulus Umbricus Scaurus’