Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Rome. Had I been that kid in the movie Airport I’d have answered yes when Peter Graves asked, “Do you like gladiator movies?” Sure the Romans had their problems, mostly a societal thirst for blood and a system of governance that makes our politics look like kindergarten squabbles, but Rome still managed to effectively rule a land area that today is poorly governed by no fewer than forty governments. And they did so with one law and one currency. But I want to discuss something more important than Rome’s lasting cultural legacy. I want to discuss fish sauce.
At this point you might be thinking about shuffling off to another blog, but hang in here. We don’t have a recipe but garum seems to have been some sort of sauce made from the rotten entrails of fish and eels. Wait, don’t go yet. I promise this will get interesting.
What if I told you that ancient documents from 200 B.C.E. have been discovered placing a value on a shipload of this goop at the equivalent of eighty-five million dollars? You’d probably say that garum must have been one helluva fish sauce to be valued up there with gold and other precious commodities.
We know that garum was the caviar of the ancient world. Just about every recipe to have survived from that time includes it as an ingredient, even desserts, and when the Emperor Augustus’ granddaughter Julia was exiled to a remote island she claimed that there was something she couldn’t live without. No, not her four copies of the Twilight
series; it was garum.
So what was the big deal? Why are most of the wrecked Roman cargo ships on the
bottom of the Mediterranean Sea filled with amphora that once contained garum? We know the product was produced on the outskirts of towns and cities, but was this because of the fetid smell or was there another reason, as experts have recently suggested? Was the State controlling production? Were emperors hoarding the formula of a f*#king fish sauce?
The Discovery Channel recently aired a program intent on shedding light on this mystery. The recipe for garum, like KFC’s seven secret herbs and spices, has not survived, but scientists decided to recreate the stuff. They guessed at the types of fish and eels used, macerated them in a bucket until they had a slimy concoction of fish and entrails, and then left the bucket in the sun for a long period of time. Romans let the concoction ferment for up to three months. Like you, I’m getting sick just thinking about it.
But scientists are an intrepid folk and on the Discovery program a brave fellow came forward to sample the eye-watering, bile-inducing substance. He scooped some of the sludge with a piece of bread, popped it into his mouth and chewed. Once his urge to vomit passed, he noticed something interesting: the garum had practically no taste, but it didn’t take long for him to conclude that this was the best bread he’d EVER eaten. He started sampling garum with other foods; fruits, cheeses, meats, sweets. Each time he concluded that the garum had little to no taste while enhancing whatever it was added to.
This phenomenon was confirmed by other scientists who’d gathered to watch their associate blow chow. Before long all of the scientists were tucking in and feasting. Soon another experience befell these men of science: they were all stoned out of their minds and infected with a ravenous case of the munchies. If this experiment were accurate, garum was also an hallucinogenic. Maybe young Romans put flower power bumper stickers on their chariots and rode out to the countryside to cast off their togas and cavort in a pagan celebration called Woodstockius. Perhaps Caligula had just powered down a batch when he decided to have his horse declared a consul of Rome. As for Nero; was he craving Fourth Meal so much that he set fire to Rome out of frustration when the nearest Taco Bell sold out of garum tacos?What I wouldn’t give for just a tiny taste. What effect might it have on me? I wonder: Hail Emperor Chubbius….