Spain Sunday: Garum

We missed last weeks Spain Sunday since we were in Almunecar. While we were there we saw an ancient Roman Garum Factory. What better subject could we write about this week?

Garum used to be one of the biggest-deal things you’ve never heard of.  Everyone ate it, it was the thing 2,100 years ago.

Originally the Greeks and Phoenicians ate it before the Romans did. While the Romans ate it the Jews partook but made it kosher. So people ate it for a little over a thousand years. People were obsessed with it – it was critical in Roman society. A good bottle of it could cost around $500 dollars today. Soldiers were even given a watered down version since it was expensive.

What was it?

A fermented fish paste/oil that was used to improve the flavor of any dish. But not just any dish, they put it in everything. It could be mixed with any meat or vegetable – they mixed with with pears and honey for dessert. They even put it in wine or water to drink. There were different types (mixes) with their own names and uses – vinegar garum, oil garum, water garum, and pepper garum. Like wine all of it had different grades and prices.

In addition to it being a flavor enhancer they believed it had medicinal qualities. They figured it cured or helped all stomach problems, dog bites, freckles, and unwanted hair. Though scientists say all it really did was spread fish-tapeworms all over Europe. Considering the Roman cities focused on hygiene with clean water and toilets – they missed the ball with garum. If they had cooked the fish rather than fermenting it people wouldn’t have gotten the tapeworms.

How was it made? 

  • Take some fish – anchovies, mackerel, tuna, anything.
  • If it’s a big enough fish, gut it and take the guts out. If it’s small just use the whole thing.
  • Get some strong herbs (coriander, fennel, dill, celery, mint, oregano, etc).
  • Layer some salt two fingers high at the bottom of a vat.
  • Then alternate layering the fish guts, herbs, and salt
  • Let ferment for 48 hours or a few months
  • Strain the junk out. The brown-ish liquid leftover was the good stuff. All the gross chunky bits were called “allec” and were still traded or sold to the poor.

Why not just use salt?

Salt drys things out while garum moistens it. We don’t know what it tasted like but the  modern version is said to be fishy tasting but mostly just a huge flavor enhancer like salt or ketchup. It didn’t make things taste too fishy. Also it had naturally occurring msg. So you can bet it was a “bet you can’t just eat one” kind of situation.

What does this have to do with Spain?

It was big in Spain. It’s where much of it was made and where the best (most expensive) kinds were made. Spanish garum was said to be the best – specifically factories in Tarifa, Cadiz and Malaga.  In good circumstances (like in Spain) it could take 48 hours to ferment rather than several months. The Spanish factories had good weather and temperature to ferment it well. They also were near the sea where salt mines were set up. Too little salt and it would rot – too much salt made it funky or could stop the fermentation. So whatever the Spaniard ancestors were doing they were doing it well. It’s also possible the fish caught off the Spanish shores were good fish for fermentation.

Sexi (Almunecar) had signs saying much of it was destined for the capital city of Rome so it must have been high class.

Garum Factories

The factory was usually set outside of the city because the smell was intense. Aqueducts led water directly to the factory – in the case of Sexi (Almunecar) it was the end of the line for the aqueduct so all the water led here eventually.

Factories had to be near the beach because

  1. Its hot so you can ferment it
  2. You can bring fish directly into the factory
  3. You can mine salt nearby
  4. You can ship it around the empire using boats.

The ampules they stored it in could break on roads so it was usually shipped out on a boat.

Each factory is pretty special. They were big and they employed a lot of people – around 50 people just in the factory. This isn’t counting all the people who grew the herbs, mined salt, made the clay storage jars, or who caught the fish.

The factory had a large central room for cleaning fish and many places to store it. There were large vats in the floor (lined with sealant) to ferment it.

They also made it two for one thing. They salted fish as well as making garum. Garum was just the byproduct of cleaning the fish that would be salted so it was quite a clever operation.


What happened to it?

This was a crazy beloved thing eaten by everyone- rich or poor for over 1,000 years. How did it just disappear?

When the Roman Empire collapsed salt was taxed. Without huge amounts of salt needed to ferment it, it suddenly couldn’t be made.

Also without Roman protection, cities on the coast (where all of it was made) were at risk for piracy and invasion. Sexi’s castle had been used to garrison civilians during pirate attacks – so this was probably it’s fate after the garum factory shut down.

The interesting news is that it’s coming back, slowly. Some people try to recreate it as best they can. “Colatura” is the name of a modern descendant. It’s sold in some restaurants in fancy pants cities in Australia, New York and weirdly, Oregon.

If you ever see a bottle what should you do with it? Put it on pasta, try an ancient Roman recipe for “Parthian Chicken” or mix it up with some eggs. If you do ever get it, know that it is “Italian food” in its purest form. Italy didn’t even have tomatoes until the very late 1400s.

3 thoughts on “Spain Sunday: Garum

  1. Well I was curious and did find recipes for Garum on Pinterest. Don’t think I’ll be making it anytime soon😊


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