A factory to make Roman fish sauce about 2,000 years ago has been found in Ashkelon – about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) outside the ancient city.
The location of the vats on the southern city’s outskirts shores up the supposition that the fish sauce, called garum, had to be manufactured out of town because the process was an olfactory abomination.
The fish farms that provided the raw material for this ancient industry were no joy to live next to either, it seems.
Being a reeking concoction that begins with drying fish guts and then a fermentation stage, adding spice and serving, it is no wonder its production was kept afar from residential areas.
Modern palates might find the finished product just as objectionable, but the Roman and Byzantine obsession with garum is well documented. In fact, the obnoxious condiment remained in fashion throughout Middle Eastern parts until the Middle Ages.
The Romans also ascribed medicinal properties to garum, but let us not forget these are also the people who thought lead was just the ticket for makeup, to line their water transport system and even put in some foods.
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Garum was manufactured throughout the Mediterranean basin area – the remains of the industry have been found chiefly in Italy and Spain.
“This is a rare find in our region and very few installations of this kind have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean,” says Tali Erickson-Gini from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“Ancient sources even refer to the production of Jewish garum,” she adds. “The discovery of this kind of installation in Ashkelon evinces that the Roman tastes that spread throughout the empire were not confined to dress but also included dietary habits.”
To be fair, it wasn’t the Romans who invented this noxious brew. Garum seems to go back over 2,500 years to ancient Greek and Phoenician cuisine. They shipped it in the same type of clay vessel (an amphora) that they used for wine and olive oil, and one theory posits that the noun itself derived from the Greek word for shrimp – sounds like garida.
If anything, modern epidemiologists suspect garum of spreading tapeworms hosted in fish throughout the Roman Empire, including to areas where fish were unknown. To be clear, if you eat an uncooked fish contaminated with cysts of Diphyllobothrium latum – i.e., the fish tapeworm – you get the worm.
However, the rub was the belated discovery by archaeoparasitologists that peoples throughout the far-flung Roman Empire got this hellish helminth, and what did they have in common? Not fish but garum, which was traded and eaten everywhere.
If the sauce had undergone a cooking stage, the worm eggs would have died. But it didn’t and they didn’t, and the result was an empire-wide tapeworm infestation.
It seems the end of garum came about less because people changed and more because the might of Rome waned and so did the trade in salt – which is key to making the stuff. Apparently, as the empire declined, garum became available mainly (and maybe only) in Rome itself. But in the empire’s heyday, the costly condiment was manufactured all along the empire’s coasts, including in North Africa and Spain. And it was eaten with positively everything, from the main course to the wine.
In general, our palates have changed over the millennia. Not a few recipes that came down to us from ancient Rome sound, by today’s standards, revolting, or at least impractical. Never mind lark’s tongue pie, how about boiled ostrich with honey and vinegar? If that sounds unpalatable, you could always garnish it with garum.
Here is a demonstration courtesy of Vox magazine on how to make garum. Go for it. Eat it. Share how it came out.
- Get fish
- Gut fish
- Save guts and give the fish flesh to the cats
- Salt guts (they suggest 1 part salt to 8 parts ex-fish)
- Add whatever dried herbs take your fancy
- Cover bowl and stick in the sun to ferment for one to three months
- Remove cover from bowl, remove standards from soul and strain. Serve
Now you too can make garum. Haaretz suggests you do it far, far away from any residential area.
Garum aside, another way to get fish tapeworm is to eat sushi. You ask how you know if you are infected by fish tapeworm. There are multiple symptoms, including possible nausea or stomach ache, chronic hunger or chronic lack of appetite. In short, consult a doctor.
It bears adding that the production of garum wasn’t the only industry at the site outside Ashkelon. The Roman site was eventually abandoned, the Israel Antiquities Authority explained, but during the Byzantine period – roughly in the fifth century – a monastic community arose and engaged in wine production.
“Three winepresses were built next to an elaborately decorated church. Little of the church has survived, but architectural fragments found at the site show that it was decorated with impressive marble and mosaics,” the authority stated.
But all good things come to an end and the Byzantine site was also eventually abandoned, following the Islamic conquest of the region in the seventh century.