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The original Roman Garum was not an attractive condiment. Lets face it, to the average, lily-livered stomach of modern man, there can be few things more revolting than the thought of a squirt of fermented fish guts over your patatas, which is basically what garum was. Even for the entrails-loving Romans, the smell of garum during the process of fermentation was said to be so foul that the common folk were actually outlawed from making it in their own homes. Regardless, it was beloved by all from the loftiest courts to the lowliest hovels and they slathered it with wild abandon over everything from sea urchins to stuffed flamingos and dormice.
None of this comes as much surprise when you consider that we are talking about a civilisation whose idea of a good pre-dinner appetizer and incidentally, sexual stimulant, was to place a live fish in front of you and watch with rapt wonder (and a growing hard-on) as it turned all the pretty colours of the rainbow while slowly and presumably painfully suffocating to death. These are also the people who popularised bulimia in an effort to extend feasting and rampant orgies long into the night. Nope, there’s no doubt about it, they knew how to lay on a good party.
But were they great cooks? It is fair to say they weren’t bad, and with Roman inspired delicacies currently undergoing something of a revival there has never been a better time to wow the inevitable summer influx of guests with toga theme parties, some authentic-ish nibbles and some sparkling gastronomic anecdotes.
Mad as it may sound given the above, garum was indeed king of the kitchen; as common among ancient Greek and Roman foodies as posh Maldon salt is today, and used liberally by the peasants much as modern-day teenagers use tomato ketchup – on anything and everything.
Like Maldon, Atlantic sea salt and the common table variety garum had its own culinary hierarchy. Different grades of this fishy sauce varied in pungency according to how much blood and guts were included in the base besides the flesh and the salt. Mackerel, the base of true garum, was considered the best. Second grade was muria, made from tuna fish, and the third, poor mans liquamen was made from any old flapper found at the bottom of the net.
Which brings us to the question, what’s Barcelona got to do with it? Barcino, as it was then, had one of the most important fish salting industry’s in the Mediterranean – indeed, it was one of the few things that Barcelona was any good for at a time when the town itself was little more than a backwater with a bog and Tarragona was the commercial centre of Roman Catalunya. Regardless, according to the great Roman scholar, Pliny, the garum made in Barcelona was considered the best money could buy. He even gave his name to it.
Made using the fresh spilled blood of the still-beating heart of a live mackerel, Pliny Garum was afterwards mixed with the creature’s entrails, salted and left to rot in the sun, until, weeks later when the solids were putrefied nicely a bad tempered, but much revered goo emerged. Finally, the Garum was strained, bottled and ready to use.
But Pliny wasn’t the only Roman A-lister to focus his attention on garum. The poet Martial, a vicious first century satirist, directed much of his poisonous scribbling’s towards bitching about the eating habits of those in court, “Tucca, it’s not enough for you to be a glutton –” he once said. “You have to be called one, and to look like one.” Meanwhile he was wooing his lover with ill-thought gifts: "Accept this exquisite garum, a precious gift made with the first blood spilled from a living mackerel." Presumably he didn’t win too many Brownie points for that one.
Meanwhile the great Roman gourmand and cook book writer Apicius (1 A.D.), who wrote 'De re Coquinaria' and reputedly killed himself rather than face eating as a “mortal” man when he ran out of money, included it in every recipe he put to paper.
With time however, Garum inevitably got bastardised and became a more generic term for a host of different seasoning combinations that included dill, anise, hyssop, thyme, cumin, poppy seeds, garlic as well as fermented fish sauce, all used by the Romans to enhance and sometimes disguise bad ingredients.
Given its dubious merits, it is surprising the dish has any modern day equivalent. But its legacy lingers on in the form of Baboong from the Phillipines or Nam Pla from South East Asia, arguably garum’s closest relatives if not geographically, then in at least in substance.
Nearer home, it has evolved into the kind of thing you might spread on toast and many European countries have their version of it. Provence (once Catalan territory) has anchoiade for example, which combines garlic, olive oil, a splash of vinegar and some pounded anchovies into a paté described by Elizabeth David as “the sort of thing to get ready quickly any time you are hungry and want something to go with a glass of wine.”
Tapenade is just slightly more exotic adding olives, capers and in some cases a slug or two of cognac to the mix. Even Britain leapt on the band wagon with Gentleman’s Relish – a fearsome, anchovy paste that puts hairs on the smoothest of chests. And with the rise of modern Catalan cuisine, contemporary garum has begun appearing on the menus of some of the region’s most innovative restaurants.
In his book, ‘Catalan Cuisine’ (available in Spanish, Catalan and English) Colman Andrews cited a recipe – still served as an aperitif at the hotel -- from the late Josep Mercader at the Hotel Ampurdán on the Costa Brava, and he very kindly gives his permission to reproduce it here. Mr Andrews wrote and I wholeheartedly agree:
“When Josep Mercader developed this version of the thing at the Hotel Ampurdán – a complex, wonderfully Mediterranean pâté or paste based on olives and anchovies (if not fermented then at least preserved) – he called it garum as a joke. But in fact there is apparently a legitimate Catalan connection with the Roman condiment of old. Fish caught off the coast of Catalonia – at least according to several modern Catalan culinary historians – was particularly prized by the Romans for the making of their fish sauce. “Catalan-brand” garum, that is, was honoured even in ancient times. This updated one deserved the same attention today, I think.”
WHERE TO TRY MODERN GARUM Year round at the Hotel Ampurdán, Antigua Carretera a Francia, Tel 972 500 562, (a la carte around €50, menu €30) Throughout May at restaurant Merlot, C/ Caballers 6, Tarragona, Tel 977 221 076 when their annual Roman feast (including garum) consists of an aperitif, three first courses, two mains and desert for around €35 On a whim at Viníssim, C/ Sant Domènec del Dall 12, Tel 93 301 4575 (gourmet tapas from €3.50, if not garum you’re guaranteed a decent tapenade)
Article contributed by Tara L. Stevens ( [email protected] ) of Saboroso.com: “Our tours offer a relaxed, fun and easy way to explore the exciting and vibrant city of Barcelona, Spain, through its citizens' favourite pastimes - eating and drinking. We aim to entertain the palette and inform the mind about Catalan cuisine, one of the most varied and intriguing on the peninsula.”