Garum: The rotten delicacy
Garum must be the culinary equivalent of the term oxymoron. Putrid and rotten, yet it was considered a delicacy. Though it might seem contradictory, garum is assumed to be very tasty, but of course, it must be an acquired taste by today’s standards. It was the much sought-after luxurious fish sauce of the Roman elite. It is a little-understood obscure taste that disappeared into oblivion, one of those oddities of lavish Roman banquets. Actually, it has its roots in Garos of ancient Greece, named as Liquamen in Latin, made with small fish, and eventually, it became a favorite of Romans. It transformed into the Roman garum made with the innards and blood of larger fish varieties and spread around the Mediterranean with the Roman Empire.
Garum used to be an essential condiment of the Roman food tables, pretty much like that soy sauce in any Chinese kitchen today, apparently, in some cases, it was quite mainstream and affordable, but in some cases very up-market and sophisticated. A few drops added to any dish would transform the taste tremendously, making the Roman palates addicted to its flavor. There were large-scale production localities in Spain, Portugal and North Africa, and smaller-scale production dotted around the Mediterranean, Aegean and Marmara Seas. Interestingly the Black Sea was another big-scale production zone, and after the crumbling of the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman successor Byzantine culture continued to enjoy garos, or similar fermented fish preserves to a certain extent. But unfortunately, the big-scale garum production and trade did not survive, and the Roman garum faded into obscurity. But is that really so?
There is still the “Colatura di Alici” of Italy, still produced in Cetara, a fishing village on the Amalfi Coast in Campania. Colatura is believed to have roots in the ancient Roman fish sauce tradition. When I was doing research as the curator of the gastronomy section of the Princess Islands City Museum in Istanbul, I came across very recent shreds of evidence of fish sauce production on the island of Burgaz. Another friend, Batu Akyol, a documentary director from Istanbul, came across Yako Karayani, a native of Büyükada who claimed his family of fishermen making garos in the traditional way, which must be one of the few surviving examples. Such stories are like magnets for the curious; that rumor of that Burgaz fisherman who used to make garos stayed with me, but I had no chance of following its traces. Apparently, the Yako case stayed with Akyol. He recently called me to ask if I heard about a recent book on the legendary fish sauce, titled “The Story of Garum: Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World.” My reply was swift: “Oh, of course, I know the author Sally Grainger; she is crazy; she recreated the sauce in her backyard!” This small conversation of ours led to compiling a multidisciplinary group of people in a panel to be aired live next weekend on May 15, on the newly launched London-based Turquazz platform Akyol has founded.
The quest for searching for the fishy sauce haunted Grainger for a long time. I vividly remember her presentation at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery on the theme “fermented,” where she showed her step-by-step experimentation in recreating the sauce. Recalling that presentation, we decided to do an online interview with Sally to find out more about the road that led her to write this colossal book. Garum is now becoming a new food fad among young chefs; each day, another chef claims to have made the sauce, but seldom do they get the real thing right. Suddenly, I remembered Pere Planagumà, a chef I know and trust, who did a presentation of world sauces at Harvard Science and Cooking Lecture Series, vaguely remembering a bottle of garum on the counter. It was the modern garum sauce he himself has recreated. So, there he was, making the amber-hued glistening sauce come to life again, so he too was in our panel.
The idea of bringing history and contemporary together always has an appeal, having a historian and a chef discussing the future of a sauce would be very inspiring. But the key ingredient was still missing. We had to have some chemistry to start the reaction bubbling. I had in mind to invite Harold McGee, the phenomenal food science writer, the guru of all chefs, thinking he would be crucial for bringing in the angle of not only food science, but also everything about taste, flavor and smell. But I kept procrastinating to ask him to join in, after all, he is very busy these days, talking in endless webinars about his new book, “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells.” So I felt intimidated to ask him to do a favor for us and spend his precious time. One day, browsing through Pere’s Instagram posts, I came across a photograph of a handwritten note: “To Pere Planagumà, Curious cook, a modern master of garum, and good friend… Harold McGee, Harvard.” That was the end of my procrastination; the missing link was there. He happily agreed to join us, and the holy trio of history, gastronomy and science was complete. Eventually, we had Elvan Uysal Bottoni from Rome to investigate about Colatura, bringing us first-hand information from Cetara, and Dimitra Mylona, a researcher native of Crete who is specialized in zooarchaeology and all aspects of fishing and maritime communities of the past. Having masterminded to bring this dream team together, I personally have little to say about garum. To admit, I cannot stand strong fishy smells, but I am no less curious than the others in the group, so I took the hard task of moderating the group. It will be exciting!
If you want to listen to what this dream team is about to find out on garum, register for the free event at the Turquazz platform: https://www.turquazz.com/product/garum-ancient-umami-and-modern-gastronomy/
Book of the Week: The starting point of our panel is the recent book by Sally Grainger, “The Story of Garum – Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish,” printed by Routledge. Grainger is an independent scholar of food history with degrees in ancient history and archaeology. She is curious and experimental, having experimented courageously with several batches of fish sauce in her backyard.
Fork of the Week: One new take on garum is the modern version of the ancient sauce created by Pere Planagumà, the two-Michelin starred chef from Costa Brava. Labeled as Escata, it is the reinterpretation of the legendary sauce, designed for use in contemporary kitchens. Not yet available in Turkey, but any reader can find it in the European market. Find out more on www.escatafood.com
Cork of the Week: For the ones who enjoy the funky smell of rotten fish, foxy wines should be the choice. Now closed due to the total lockdown, but hopefully soon to open Foxy Bar in Nişantaşı, Istanbul offers a range of off-the-beaten-track wines from all over Anatolia. To know more visit: http://followthefoxy.com/