Chemistry between fish and salt
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the ancient Greek and Roman fish sauce garum and announced a video talk we were supposed to have online free for everyone to watch. Now, this is the aftermath piece on the same topic, which can be simply put as “when fish meets with salt, what happens next?” Or maybe I’d rather have the title “Garum: Episode 2,” following our presentation on Garum at the Turquazz platform. To admit, it was an eventful talk starting with technical mishaps, but the content was the best we could compile in a limited time. I have to say that, when tackling a topic like an ancient food product that went into oblivion within the course of history, one can only scratch the surface, especially if one tries to accommodate the past, present and future of the product in the same session. When one embarks on a journey from history towards the future, it becomes a long voyage that calls for experts from various fields, not just archaeologists and historians but a wide range of experts from several disciplines. Today’s archaeology has transformed into a multi-disciplinary field, getting much support from science.
When the topic is a food product like garum, naturally, the gastronomy world steps in. Nowadays, there is also a rising interest in history in the chef circles, most get their inspiration from past cultures and food practices, and of course, history is a good background for telling stories. Every single creative dish comes with its own story; sometimes, it is the childhood memories of the creator chef, or the historical references from their ancestral past, even if it is from a few thousand years back. The ancient fish sauce garum is likely to be a new food fad, with many star chefs showing interest in reviving the long-lost delicacy, which gives any food an instant umami boost with a few miraculous droplets. But of course, one needs to understand the nature of the process and what exactly happens when fish and salt come together, and with the hidden ingredient “time,” which works wonders to turn something rotten and stinky into something desirable and delicious.
When London based Turquazz platform asked me to do a webinar interview with historian Sally Grainger on her latest book titled “The Story of Garum – Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish” and printed by Routledge, my first urge was to expand it further, including experts from other fields and garum aficionados looking at the topic from different angles. That is how I thought to bring together chef Pere Planagumà and author Harold McGee to join Sally Grainger to have a chef and a science writer complementing and adding their own expertise to understand garum more thoroughly. Planagumà has been playing with the idea of garum in recent years, and he has his own garum labeled under the name Escata. He gets the remains of fishes from a tinned anchovy production, and keeps expanding his product range to a number of other garum-based items, including garum salt and garum distillate. The latter is likely to become a big hit in mixology; a dash of it will surely transform a dry martini cocktail or Bloody Mary. His contribution represented a vision for the future of garum, but he was not alone. At the last moment, celebrated Turkish chef Fatih Tutak joined the group as a guest contributor, who has successfully included many forms of garum in his menu at his latest restaurant called TURK in Istanbul. By Tutak’s words, garum is a brilliant concept, transforming trash into a rock star. “Trash” here means fish innards, viscera, blood and bones that are otherwise supposed to be thrown away but are transformed into something tasty, luxurious and special instead.
Needless to say, we desperately needed the help of Harold McGee to explain what exactly lies behind this miracle happening and the secret to this transformation. McGee is surely the guru of all chefs. His book titled “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” has been like the Bible to many who want to understand the scientific background and chemistry of cooking. His latest book, “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to World’s Smells,” is already another reach-out reference; a must-have book not only for chefs but for anyone intrigued to know about the sensory adventure in the world of smells. He explained very intelligibly how proteins and oils in the fish go through physical and chemical decomposition and how the chemical breakdown aided by enzymes into amino acids forms glutamic acid or glutamates, making garum something like an umami bomb. Of course, we needed McGee to add the angle of the chemistry of garum and its flavor and smell. But he himself was the actual chemistry that bonded the group; all of us were fascinated by his clear and thorough explanations on the garum miracle. He also very responsibly addressed the dangers of botulism and food poisoning if this chemistry is not properly monitored and if the process is not understood correctly. We all need to keep that risk in mind when dealing with fermentation; we might be playing with fire, so we have to be aware of the possible dangers.
But another ingredient still went missing: The social aspect! The fishing communities that still practice similar fermented fish products and their stories needed to be addressed. And that is how we reached Dimitra Mylona from Greece and Elvan Uysal Bottoni from Italy. In recent years, Mylona had the chance to examine numerous fishing communities, especially in Northern Aegean. Having participated in a recent EU-funded project on maritime cultural heritage and in the Greek part, she explored the fishing cultural heritage of North East Aegean and conducted lots of ethnographic work talking with many fishermen. Many of those fishermen came from Asia Minor, Turkish Thrace, or the Black Sea during the population exchange in the early 20th century. So, in a way, she also covered Turkey as most fishermen also talked about their memories from those areas. The fishing ethnography aspect was strengthened by the contribution of Uysal Bottoni, who was kind enough to travel all the way to Cetara, coming up with stories of people who make “Colatura di Alice,” an Italian fish sauce considered by the locals to be a continuation of garum tradition. In a way, starting with Planagumà from Spain, the contemporary garum geography was also covered by Italy, Greece and Turkey, hopping all the way across the Mediterranean.
I hope this garum talk will be the start of many others to come in the near future; we might have only scratched the surface. As I said, we embarked on a journey starting with Grainger’s book, but the chemistry between fish and salt brought this amazing group together, and I’m sure it will take us to new adventures beyond our expectations.
For the ones who missed the talk, it can be watched at:
Also keep an eye at the Turquazz Culture website www.turquazz.com to reach the deciphered e-book, including the Q&A comments.