There once was a condiment completely beloved by the Western world, but today, it has almost completely vanished. It was slathered on everything, and everyone went nuts over it. You might be thinking it’s gone, but it isn’t. You can still get garum, sort of. If you try really hard, or are willing to pay for it.
You might not’ve heard of garum before, but it was hugely important 2000 years ago. Just how important, I’ll let Wikipedia explain, because it’s Sunday:
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. In the ruins of Pompeii, jars were even found containg kosher garum, suggesting an equal popularity among Roman Jews.
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.
So it was kind of a big deal. And remember this is a long time ago, so it’s not like there was mass globalization as you see it now, for every little thing under the sun. But everyone in the Empire wanted garum.
Garum fell by the wayside as the Roman Empire collapsed, however. And was nearly forgotten, for a few reasons as NPR explains:
So how did something so savory, and nutritious, and widespread just disappear? Archaeologist Claudio Giardino said that it comes down to two things: first off, taxes.
“In the Roman times, salt was a cheap material,” he says. “When the Roman Empire collapsed, they put taxes on the salt. And because of these taxes, it became difficult to produce garum.”
And the collapse of the Roman Empire created another problem: pirates.
“The pirates started destroying the cities and the industries nearby the coast. You could be killed any moment by the pirates, without the protection of the Romans,” Giardino says.
So sad, for garum.
But what if you want to eat like the Ancient Romans did? What if you wanted just a small taste of that old-timey flavor?
Good news! You can still buy garum. Sort of. While garum drastically declined in popularity, it hasn’t completely ceased to exist. A modern descendent of garum is still made in a little tiny corner of southern Italy, and is known as Colatura di Alici de Cetara. That’s its fancy name, mind you, but in Italian it just really means “anchovy sauce from Cetara,” Cetara being the little village on the Amalfi Coast where it’s still made.
But if you go to Cetara, as I did a few weeks ago, they actually still call it garum! Most of the restaurants there have it in some form on the menu, and there are a bunch of stores that sell it. Though, depending on where you live, it’s not exactly easy to get to Cetara. First, it tends to involve somehow getting to Naples, Italy, then a train to Sorrento, then a bus to Amalfi, then another bus to Salerno, but you’ll ask to be let off at Cetara and everyone will look at you like you have three heads because what sort of tourist wants to get off at some random little fishing village???
(Or you can rent a car and drive, but even I’ll admit that’s a little nuts.)
But if you do make it there, the garum is delicious, and it costs about $8 a bottle.
OR, you can buy it on Amazon (seriously, Amazon has everything) for about $17/bottle. Small bottle though, so just be aware it is kinda pricey.
So what does it taste like? Well, don’t be put off by the fishy scent, as it doesn’t actually taste much like fish. To understand what it tastes like, just remember that Ancient Romans didn’t have a lot of spices, and most of their taste buds were destroyed by lead anyway. So it mostly tastes like a combination of salt and MSG. I know, I know, MSG doesn’t have a “flavor” on its own, but it enhances the taste of whatever it’s in. And, weirdly enough, garum is chock full of naturally occurring MSG, supposedly.
So, mostly salt, and a slight savory taste as well.
If you manage to get your hands on some modern garum, do as the locals do today and mix it with some spaghetti, chili oil, fresh garlic, and a dash of parsley. Add in a little of the pasta water so all the flavor a bind together.
The taste is simply divine, and quite unlike anything else in the world when it all comes together.
Photo credit: Me!