Yes, noble – this is how the Roman poet Martial described garum in his "Epigrams", published at the end of the 1st century AD. Although it was a product of a smelly fish, the sauce itself was considered of “a very exquisite nature”.
The sauce most likely was taken from the Greeks and then was modified according to Roman taste. The Greek sauce was called "garon" and as its name suggests, initially was made not just from fish, but from small crustaceans such as shrimps and prawns as well. The name of this product derives from an ancient root that is used as general term for small crustaceans - "karis, karidos" (καρίς, gen. ῖδος, ἡ) and has given the word for shrimp in Modern Greek - "garida" (γαρίδα).
One can imagine how would smell a sauce made of fish! Well, here comes the real surprise. It is true that its preparation included fermentation of the fish (and sometimes their intestines!), but the salt used in the process actually inhibited putrefaction. During the process, not bacteria or microbes caused the decomposition of the fish, but rather the enzymes that existed in their digestive tract. Of course, there was a smell during the preparation– that is why all factоries of the Ancient World were located out of towns. The odour of the ready product though was not so disgusting and probably not less tolerable that the one of some famous French “stinky cheeses” nowadays.
As an ancient product, there cannot be 100% certainty about how the garum tasted. Thanks to the old recipes of different ancient authors, experimental archaeologists can reconstruct the sauce. Unfortunately, almost no author has given exact proportions of the ingredients. There is only one text that mentions ratio salt-fish – a twenty-book collection called "Geoponica", compiled around 10th century AD in Byzantium. The garum recipe in that book describes the traditional way of letting the fish in jars under the sun for several months, but also provides a “quick recipe” for preparation on a stove. This one probably has given a different taste, but that sauce was in common use too.
Some scientists (Sally Grainger) and history cooking lovers (Laura Kelly) have tried to produce garum using the old way and experimenting with the ingredients.
They report that the taste is pungent but has that fifth element called "umami" that is between the four basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
We also experimented, but with the “quick recipe”, as it is one that can be done in a modern kitchen. You can see what we have done in this post.
His Highness THE GARUM!
There are many and sometimes discrepant ancient sources about what exactly garum was. The varying tradition during different periods can explain the different descriptions in producing the sauce, as well as the fact that with the time this procedure undoubtedly evolved.
Тhere are two terms used to depict fish sauce in Latin. The one is garum and usually presents sauce made out of small fish altogether with viscera and blood. Some suggest even just the viscera and the blood, although it is hard to imagine how they can be separated from the fish in such big quantities for making the sauce.
The second one is called liquamen, and only fish chopped into small parts (without heads or intestine) were used for the preparation. Different type of fish has been used in different parts of the Roman world. Ancient authors mention tuna, sardines, anchovies, sprat. Many of them though agree that the best one for preparing exquisite garum is mackerel.
The regular procedure for making fish sauce called for putting the fish (with or without viscera) in jars, adding salt, closing the jars tightly and letting the fish to ferment. The jars should be left outside in the open air, under the sun, and occasionally shaked. After two-three months, the formed liquid inside was to be drained off the jar in a separate vessel. This liquid was our noble sauce!
Thick sediment of non-dissolved fish usually left on the top of the jar. Romans called it "allec" (or "allex", or "hallex") and did not throw it. They use it as fish paste, or spread and consumed it with bread for breakfast for instance. By the time when Pliny lived (beginning of the 1st century AD) the preparation of "allec" has been refined as to a product not just of fish, but of oysters and see-urchins as well.
Although the procedure was relatively common, the sauce made of fish and innards was different that the one made just of fish. The garum was thick and dark with a color of dark brown. The liquamen was said to be pure and translucent with a color of amber. The former was used much more like vinaigrette, added to the already cooked food. The later was used as an ingredient in the cooking itself.
In the late Roman Empire, the term "liquamen" transforms in a generic name and starts to indicate both "garum" and "liquamen" .
Romans took the garum from Greeks, but they were the ones who made it popular all over the Ancient World. Like many other things (e.g. the language) the fish sauce got its large distribution through the soldiers’ boots. The garum was an indispensable part of the army’s food supplies as is confirmed by many amphorae of fish sauce discovered at military camps along the border line (limes) of the Roman Empire.
Some speculations have been made that Greeks adopted the sauce from the Phoenicians. There is no sure evidence for that, but it is fact that old Phoenician colonies that functioned in Roman times as Roman cities (such as Carthago Nova (Cartago Spartaria), in modern Spain or Luxus, in modern Morocco), were considered as the best producers of garum. In his "Natural History" Pliny the Elder confirmed the highest quality of the Carthago Nova’s fish sauce, specifying that this one was made of mackerel (Scomber). Other cities famous with their garum were Clasomenae, Leptis and Pompeii.
Producing fish sauce was, apparently, a profitable business. The house of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, a freedman and producer of garum in Pompeii, was one of the wealthiest. Ex-slave, Aulus Umbricius became a rich man by preparing and selling fish sauce. He decorated his house with beautiful mosaic depicting "urceus" - the special one-handled vessel for containing garum. On the "urceus" we can see an expressive inscription: G(ari) F(los) SCOM(bri) “Flower of Garum (The very best of Garum), from mackerel” and his name as producer.
What was so special about garum that made it in such high demand?
The answer is possibly in its universality as food condiment and cooking ingredient; it was reported that garum was not to be consumed alone, but with a combination of other products.
The fish sauce is rather salty than fishy and shows some indications of cheese aftertaste. When used as ingredient for cooking, usually a small amount (a tablespoon) of it is needed for a 4-6 persons’ meal. His main purpose is to salt down the dish, to enhance the other flavours and to balance them in a fine taste harmony. In Roman cuisine, the use of garum was enriched with different combinations of the sauce - with honey (meligarum), vinegar (oxygarum), wine (oenogarum), water (hydrogarum), or dry spices (such as dill, oregano, coriander, celery, or even mint). These sauces were used as condiments for literally everything: from meat and fish to vegetables, salads, desserts, bread, and wine dipping.
The garum was cherished not only for its culinary qualities, but also for its medicinal properties. Ancient authors reported that the garum, the allec and even the brine from their production (muria) may be used as a cure both for humans and animals. "Allec" was very good with healing dog bites or bites of sea-dragon. Garum was applied on recent burns and bites of dog but was particularly good against ulcers and bites of crocodile. It was considered as useful remedy for painful affections of the mouth and ears and was prescribed as a laxative. The brine (muria) was also used to cure dysentery and was very beneficial for the digestive tract if there were ulcers.
Now, it is quite understandable why Martial has named garum “a noble sauce”! Smelly or not, the sauce combined two exclusive characteristics: to be tasty food and food additive along with the power of the healing human body. This may explain the words of Pliny, saying that hardly other liquid, except unguents, were sold at such high price, bringing huge fame to the nations that produced it.
Archaeologists have one more reason to value garum. The remaining of fish bones found at one of the garum factories of Pompeii helped to date more precisely the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destructed the city in 79 AD. From the bones that turned out to be of a seasonal species, scientists could confirm that the devastation of the city occurred in August.
So how come such valuable product has disappeared from our menu?
Well, it did not! Although not vastly known, the fish sauce has been preserved in different places in Europe. One very similar to the original is a sauce called "colatura d'alici" which is produced in Italy, in the region of Campania. According to the Italian scientists Alfredo Carannante, Claudio Giardo, and Umberto Savarese it is as close to the ancient garum as it gets.
In France, there is another example of garum successor. In the region of Nice, there is an anchovy puree, called "pissalat" (probably from Latin pisces salsi – salted fish). It is usually flavoured with cloves, thyme, bay leaf, olive oil, and black pepper and is the modern variation of the "allec". The French people confirm that it is a recipe of Roman times.
A fish sauce "mahyawa" made of anchovies and mixed with fennel seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and mustard seeds, is very popular in Iran. Due to the migration of the Persian Huwala and Ajam communities in the Persian Gulf countries, that sauce is popular food item in the Middle East too.
Usually, the fish sauce is thought as an integral part of the Asian cuisine. It might be strange, but there is strong evidence that that kind of sauce in the East was not a local invention but came from the West. According to the food specialist Laura Kelly the fish sauce did not appear in Asia until early Middle Age period in Europe. She believes that Asians adopted the fish sauce through the means of the so called "Silk Road". The recipe changed as it moved East and eventually turned in the popular sauces such as "Nuoc mam" (Vietnam), "Nam pla" (Thailand), and "Bagoong" (Philippines).