Funky Fish Guts Were the Ketchup of Ancient Rome

A network of factories and trade routes sprang up to feed Rome’s insatiable appetite for garum, a singularly smelly relish.

By María José Noain Maura
Published 20 Jan 2018, 09:16 GMT
Photograph by Scala, Florence

What would be on the menu for a banquet at the home of a rich Roman at the end of the first century A.D.? A dozen guests reclining on couches would wait for slaves to carry laden dishes to the table. What would they serve? To start, there might be pork with garum, followed by fish with garum, and to wash it down: wine with . . . yes, garum!

So what was this essential sauce that enhanced so many Roman dishes? Today’s closest equivalent to garum is probably fish sauce, a liquid mix of fermented fish and salt, which is now a staple in many Southeast Asian cuisines. Like modern fish sauce, Roman garum was also made from fermented fish—the guts specifically—and salt. It was used in recipes to enhance flavour. Romans cooked with it either as a straight flavoring or by combining it with other ingredients, such as pepper (garum piperatum), vinegar (oxygarum), wine (oenogarum), oil (oleagarum), or even drinking water (hydrogarum).

This condiment became so essential to the ancient Roman palate that a huge network of trade routes grew up to move the prized relish from fishery to plate. Like many delicacies today, the finest garum could sell for astronomical sums.

Numerous garum factories sprang up along the coasts of North Africa and Spain, such as the one at Baelo Claudia (above), near modern-day Tarifa in southern Spain.
Photograph by Classic Vision, AGE Fotostock

As well as gracing dinner plates in the empire, garum was also used medicinally. Its high protein content was thought to stimulate the appetites of recovering patients and to have curative properties for a range of maladies. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder extols garum as a cure for dysentery and an effective treatment for dog bites. Pliny also recommended it for earaches, and believed that consuming African snails marinated in garum would ward off stomach troubles.

Fish Factories

Garum’s origins lie in both Greek and Phoenician cooking. Amphorae containing deposits of the sauce have been found in shipwrecks from the fifth century B.C., and it is believed that its name may derive from the Greek word for shrimp.

It was the Romans, however, who really got a taste for the stuff. By the imperial period it was part of a thriving, pan-European economy. Factories known as cetariae proliferated to satisfy the Roman world’s craving for the fish sauce. Typically, these production centres were located near the coast, ensuring quick and easy access to the freshest catch. They also tended to be outside the city center because of the stench radiating from them.

Each factory had a central patio, rooms for cleaning fish, and places to store the prized liquid when it was made. The most characteristic elements of these factories were the vats in which the fish sauce was produced. These were normally made of cement set into the floor, but occasionally they have been found excavated out of rock. The vats’ interiors were coated with opus signinum, a highly resistant sealant to ensure the precious glop did not seep away.

Two types of products were made in the cetariae: salt fish and garum. There was a very practical reason for carrying out both processes together: Garum conveniently used up the otherwise disagreeable by-products—fish innards—of the salting process.

To make garum, vats were filled with fresh fish guts typically cleaned from whitebait, anchovies, mackerel, tuna, and others. They were placed between layers of salt and aromatic herbs and left in the sun for several months until they reached proper pungency. It was important to add just the right amount of salt—too little would result in putrefaction, while too much would disrupt the natural process of fermentation that gave the sauce its distinctive tang.

When the fermentation stage was finished, the malodorous mixture was strained. The resulting thick, amber liquid was the prized sauce garum, while the paste left behind was called allec. An inferior product to garum, allec was also widely traded.

Garum Gourmets

Not unlike different types of wine or cheeses today, garum came in all sorts of different grades and prices, depending on the type of fish used to make it and on the concentration of the liquid. The weaker product was usually destined for more modest kitchens, but in the later Roman Empire, factories in Armorica (modern-day Brittany in France) produced cheap garum to supply the huge demand from the army.

The rich, meanwhile, scouted for high-end garum. Pliny the Elder extols one particular gourmet variety known as garum sociorum, which was produced on the outskirts of Carthago Nova (modern-day Cartagena in southern Spain). Praising this mackerel-based product to the heavens, Pliny put its fragrance on a par with the finest unguents or perfumes.

A sauce salesman and freed slave, Aulus Umbricius Scaurus constructed his dream house in first-century Pompeii thanks to the fortune he made from garum. Believed to have been the main supplier of the prized sauce to the wealthy city, his atrium was decorated with a mosaic floor incorporating images of garum amphorae, including this one (above).
Photograph by Foglia, Scala, Florence

Delicacy Delivery

Regardless of where it came from or its quality, all garum was stored in amphorae for transportation. There were many types of garum amphorae, but they were always kept separate from those used for transporting oil or wine. On some, inscriptions known as tituli picti have been preserved. These “labels” are a kind of marking painted on the outside of the amphora to indicate what kind of foodstuff was on the inside.

Although garum was produced in many different places across the Roman world, the Iberian Peninsula was especially rich in salting factories. Many used mackerel and even tuna as their main ingredient. A whiff of the Roman Cartagena fisheries lives on in the name of the modern town in the area—Escombreras, derived from scombris, the Latin word for “mackerels.”

Baelo Claudia was a key garum production centre, lying conveniently near the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean Sea joins the Atlantic Ocean. These waters form the migratory route for several fish species. Here, nets could be set to catch tuna as they passed through on their way to spawn, a practice that continues on that coast to this day.

The majority of factories on the Iberian Peninsula were dotted along the Andalusian coast up to Portugal and the mouth of the Tagus River. Remnants of garum amphorae from these towns have been found all over the Roman Empire. By tracking amphorae finds, researchers can trace an extensive network, by land and sea, that once brought garum to its imperial consumers.

Italy was, of course, richly supplied, and many garum amphorae have been found at the Monte Testaccio in Rome, a spoil heap more than 100 feet high consisting entirely of discarded, broken food vessels. Garum was also carried over land routes through western Europe, eventually reaching the remote hills of northern England as far as Hadrian’s Wall. There, on the chilly northern boundaries of the civilised world, soldiers and citizens could nevertheless enjoy the salty tang of the fish sauce fermented in the Mediterranean sun.


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