Garum was a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment in the cuisines of ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. Liquamen was a similar preparation, and at times the two were synonymous. Although it enjoyed its greatest popularity in the Roman world, the sauce was earlier used by the Greeks. The Romans thought the Latin word garum derived from the Greek garos, a fish from which it was supposed to have been originally made, but this fish-name is unknown in classical Greek.
Garum was prepared from the intestines of small fishes through the process of bacterial fermentation. Fishermen would lay out their catch according to the type and part of the fish, allowing makers to pick the exact ingredients they wanted. The fish parts were then macerated in salt, and cured in the sun for one to three months. The mixture fermented and liquified in the dry warmth, with the salt inhibiting the common agents of decay. Garum was the clear liquid that formed on the top, drawn off by means of a fine strainer inserted into the fermenting vessel. The sediment or sludge that remained was allec. Concentrated decoctions of aromatic herbs might be added. Flavors would vary according to the locale, with ingredients sometimes from in-house gardens.
The end product was very nutritious, retaining a high amount of protein and amino acids, along with a good deal of minerals and B vitamins. Garum was also very rich in glutamic acid, a natural umami flavoring, making its use similar to modern monosodium glutamate.
The manufacture and export of garum was an element of the prosperity of coastal Greek emporia from the Ligurian coast of Gaul to the coast of Hispania Baetica, and perhaps an impetus for Roman penetration of these coastal regions. Amphorae recovered from shipwreck sites off Ansérune and Agde bear the traces of the garum they contained and date as early as the 5th century BC.
Each port had its own traditional recipe, but by the time of Augustus, Romans considered the best to be garum from Cartagena and Gades in Baetica. This product was called garum sociorum, "garum of the allies". The ruins of a garum factory remain at the Baetian site of Baelo Claudia (in present-day Tarifa) and Carteia (San Roque). Garum was a major export product from Hispania to Rome, and gained the towns a certain amount of prestige. The garum of Lusitania (in present-day Portugal) was also highly prized in Rome, and was shipped directly from the harbour of Lacobriga (Lagos). A former Roman garum factory can be visited in the Baixa area of central Lisbon. Fossae Marianae in southern Gaul, located on the southern tip of present-day France, served as a distribution hub for Western Europe, including Gaul, Germania, and Roman Britain.
Umbricius Scaurus' production of garum put the ancient city of Pompeii on the map. The factories where garum was produced in Pompeii have not been uncovered, perhaps indicating that they lay outside the walls of the city. The production of garum created such unpleasant smells that factories were generally relegated to the outskirts of cities. In 2008, archaeologists used the residue from garum found in containers in Pompeii to confirm the August date of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The garum had been made entirely of bogues, fish that congregate in the summer months.
Garum was produced in various grades consumed by all social classes. After the liquid garum was ladled off of the top of the mixture, the remains of the fish, called allec or alec, was used by the poorest classes to flavour their staple porridge or polenta. The finished product—the nobile garum of Martial's epigram—was apparently mild and subtle in flavor. The best garum fetched extraordinarily high prices, and salt could be substituted for a simpler dish. Garum appears in most of the recipes featured in the Roman cookbook Apicius.
In the 1st century AD, liquamen was a sauce distinct from garum, as indicated throughout the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum IV. By the 5th century or earlier, however, liquamen had come to refer to garum. The available evidence suggests that the sauce was typically made by crushing the innards of (fatty) pelagic fishes, particularly anchovies, but also sprats, sardines, mackerel or tuna, and then fermenting them in brine. In most surviving tituli picti inscribed on amphorae, where the fish ingredient is shown, the fish is mackerel.
When mixed with wine (oenogarum, a popular Byzantine sauce), vinegar, black pepper, or oil, garum enhances the flavor of a wide variety of dishes, including boiled veal and steamed mussels, even pear-and-honey soufflé. Diluted with water (hydrogarum) it was distributed to Roman legions. Pliny remarked that it could be diluted to the colour of honey wine and drunk.
The taste for garum had a social dimension that might be compared to an aversion to garlic in some modern Western societies, or to the adoption of fish sauce in Vietnamese cuisine (called nước mắm there). Seneca, holding the old-fashioned line against the expensive craze, cautioned against it, even though his family was from Baetian Corduba:
Do you not realize that garum sociorum, that expensive bloody mass of decayed fish, consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction?—Seneca, Epistle 95.
Garum was also employed as a medicine. It was thought to be one of the best cures for many ailments, including dog bites, dysentery, and ulcers, and to ease chronic diarrhea and treat constipation. Garum was even used as an ingredient in cosmetics and for removal of unwanted hair and freckles.
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- James Grout: Garum, part of the Encyclopædia Romana