It’s an Acquired Taste

The Roman and Greek armies traveled with garum. Running out of garum was as much of a tragedy as running out of wine, used to purify questionable water found along the way.

Many recipes that survive from antiquity call for allowing fish to putrefy in open vats under the Mediterranean sun for up to three months.

The word, “garum” was fungible to some extent since could refer to both a sauce used in the cooking process—sometimes also called liquamen—and to a condiment, made with the blood and viscera of fish, that writers such as Petronius, Ausonius, and Seneca knew as garum sociorum (“garum of the allies”). In either case, for most scholars, the lesson of garum (pronounced gah-room) has been that the past inhabited by Roman gourmands—known to eat sow udders, ostrich brains, and roasted dormice rolled in honey—was an unimaginably foreign country.

While archaeologists have excavated concrete vats used for making garum from Tunisia to France, intact organic remains have proven harder to come by. A breakthrough occurred in 2009 when Italian researchers discovered six sealed dolia (large clay storage vessels) in a building that modern scholars have dubbed the Garum Shop at Pompeii. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried the building under several feet of ash, perfectly preserving a small factory just as it was salting down a late-summer catch of locally fished picarel (it’s like a pike) to make liquamen.

Food technicians from the universities of Cádiz and Seville analyzed the charred, powdered remains from Pompeii. Using that information, and guided by a liquamen recipe thought to have been written in the third century A.D.—it calls for heavily salted small fish to be fermented with dill, coriander, fennel, and other dried herbs in a closed vessel for one week—the researchers produced what they claim is the first scientific recreation of the 2,000 year-old fish sauce.

Using a gas chromatograph and a scanning electron microscope, researchers at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canarias identified the fish, like anchovies. Specialists at the University of Alcalá de Henares performed pollen analysis, which indicated the presence of mint, sage, thyme, oregano, and other herbs. Most ancient recipes call for whole small fatty fish to be layered between herbs and salt in concrete vats. Palacios’ team used large glass fermenting vessels.

When small fish start to decay, the bacterial flora in their guts burst through cell walls, initiating the process of autolysis. The fish essentially digest themselves, liquefying the proteins in muscle tissue. The presence of salt slows this fermentation process, promoting lactic acid bacteria that defeat pathogens and such foul-smelling toxins as cadaverine and putrescine. (Too much salt stops autolysis altogether; too little invites botulism.) Palacios’ team found that the result, after 25 days, was a paste of dissolved fish bones and flesh topped by a salty, amber-hued liquid, which smelled like a “mixture of dried fish, seaweed and spices.” The sauce proved to be a protein bomb, especially rich in glutamic acid, the same amino acid that gives Parmesan cheese, tamari sauce, and cooked mushrooms their savory, umami intensity.

It made the Roman legions tough.


The Lobster BLT – an art form (you don’t need to dip it in garum to make it taste good…)



    • Nuoc Mam, the nectar of the gods. I love it. I remember, near where the fishing boats used to come in in Nha Trang, they had racks of fish up drying in the sun, with the liquid dripping out of them, from which they made the sauce. If you get the really good quality “sauce”, something I would liken to the first pressing for the best quality olive oil, it is really potent. When you sweat, it comes out of the pores of your skin in a similar way to garlic.

      • I have nuoc mam here at the house, purchased in Little Saigon, imported from the old country. I don’t put it on everything but there are dishes where it’s essential to make them taste right.

      • Wife made friends with a Vietnamese family back before we were married (she actually used to teach Vietnamese songs to Viet children at the local temple.) Went to their house and they were making dipping sauce for the dinner that night. Took the bottle of nuoc mam outside to the back of the backyard, poured a measure into a mason jar, added whatever else they needed, closed up the bottle and the jar, rinsed off both with the hose, and put both back in the refrigerator. The mother said the jar needed to fight itself before it was tasty.

        8 hours later, the dipping sauce was ready and wonderful.

        But she (the mother) cautioned us to always open the bottle outside, always pour it outside, always let it fight the things it mixes with. And never ever drop the bottle.

    • Funny story…
      A few years ago I was overjoyed to find imported Nuoc Mam at our local international grocery store.
      I bought a 12oz bottle.
      I inadvertently put it in the refrigerator along with the other groceries.
      Unfortunately, the glass bottle that the Nuoc Mam was in was ALSO imported from Vietnam and of dubious quality.
      Some time later, as I was moving the bottle from the refrigerator to the counter-top, the HEAT FROM MY HAND caused the neck of the cold, imperfect glass bottle to snap. Whereupon, the bottle continued to the floor and shattered like a grenade.
      I, and the entire kitchen, were covered in a thin layer of sauce.
      …took 3 days to get the smell out of the house.

      • The Big Splash of nuoc mam would definitely be too much of a good thing. Nothing like the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls…

        • I don’t seem to remember it as fondly as some of you do, nor do I even remember how to spell it correctly……oh well. To each his own………and you lot can have ALL of mine too!

  1. Garum…quite the “recipe”. Captain Phillips (the movie) showed the Somali pirates chewing Khat to gain courage. Maybe that’s that cretin Omar’s problem…clearly out of her mind.

    These plates of food art reminded me of smørrebrød in Denmark, each open face sandwich is a work of art. All about the presentation.

    Now I’m hungry, a breakfast burrito at the local Conoco (actually homemade and excellent), will have to do.

    • Gas station Mexican food is often excellent. There is a place in Green River, UT where an Abuela makes it out of her house, attached to a gas station. Some of the best I’ve ever had, everything made from scratch. Green River is a very small town and this place was on the north side of I-70. I wonder if it’s still open? If it was down the street, I’d eat there all the time. It’s not as good as LSP’s brisket burrito joint in Itasca, TX (also located in a house), but close to as good. The place doesn’t have a filling station attached and that could be their problem.

      • Being out of town requires one to have these good food places in the memory bank as usually good food is few and far between, like fuel stops. This one is 15 miles West of Pinedale, WY, and has an amazing restaurant that I might do tonight instead of the camper meals I brought. Worth the 40 mile drive r/t.

  2. Sow udders, ostrich brains, and roasted dormice rolled in honey. While I enjoy sampling new flavors, I have to draw the line somewhere. I’ll stick to BBQ.

  3. I remember Bagoóng from my days in the Philippines. Very similar to garum, I’d guess. I always thought the smell could gag a goat, but to my amazement, I liked it when my girlfriend insisted I try it on something (while holding my nose). I’m not a huge fan of many fish to begin with. The open air fish markets were particularly disgusting to walk by. I used to say it was a fantastic bargain on protein, though — buy a pound of fish, get a pound of flies free!

  4. Acquired tastes, yada yada.

    You have to do something to cover up the taste of questionable food. Which is how ketchup and garum and other things came about.

    Eh, as long as it’s not moving and it’s not obviously organs, I’ll try it, as long as it smells good.

  5. Apparently the dormice thing is still a thing with some branches of the Mafia over in Italy.

    I guess the dormice are a protected species, now? So there’s a black market.


  6. Makes me wonder if the present day practice of the Swedes in producing and eating lutefisk (rotted herring in lye) has any roots back to the Greek and Roman times.

    I grew up with bacalao which is dried fish filets (huge – maybe 18 to 24″ by 6″ and 1/2 inch thick). Came in twine tied bundles and sat on the store shelves stacked like boards, zero packaging. Very salty, had to soak in water, change water 2 or 3 times, then boil and mix with rice and a few common herbs.

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