I said we were going to do it in the original post on garum. And so we have. Our attempt to make garum the traditional, slow way has officially begun. Fifteen pounds of fresh, whole Norwegian mackerel, and about nine pounds of sea salt have been combined in a clean, sturdy, sealable, 5-gallon painter’s bucket. And now we wait, and let the heat and humidity turn it into a delicious amber liquid to enhance the flavor of the savory dishes we eat.
Prepping it was a lot of fun. I caused a run on Norwegian mackerel at the East Asian Market, with two other customers buying large amounts of the same species after I did. I also caused a bit of confusion in the staff when I told them not to clean the fish for me. They smiled and nodded and asked me three more times how I wanted it processed and I reassured them that I needed the fish whole, head and tail on, lightly rinsed. When I explained that I was going to make fish sauce, the manager stared at me for a moment and politely reminded me of the many varieties of fish and shrimp sauces and pastes they had in aisle seven.
My son helped me prepare the fish, which included only a good wash down and cutting them in two with the biggest knife he had ever held. He thought the fish were beautiful with their blue striped iridescent backs, and was only a little put off if a bit of blood flowed out of the gills during washing. He’s excellent at salting as well, and made sure there was a flat white layer of sea salt in between each layer of fish.
It was really quite simple to do and not all that messy, because the fish was very fresh. I consulted a lot of historical sources for recipes and wound up going on instinct influenced by knowledge of modern production of colatura where opaque layers of salt separate the layers of fish.
The painter’s bucket is much more airtight than a wooden barrel or a terra cotta pot, so there is no need to coat the inside surface with anything. I also chose to produce the garum without herbs – figuring that these can be introduced later after the garum is harvested.
So far, there is absolutely no odor around the bucket, but that may change as the digestive enzymes start to break down the rest of the fish. Then stirring becomes important. We have a lot of wild animals in our area and I am interested to see what they make of this as time – and fermentation – goes on.
One thing I found most interesting was that I used as much salt as I found necessary to completely cover the layers of fish along with a final layer that has got to be about an inch thick. Now, recipes of garum vary widely and call for a ratio of fish to salt ranging between 5:1 to 1:1. Generally, I’m a bit salt phobic. I never use as much salt as prescribed to make preserved lemons for North African and Andalusian cooking, and they always turn out just fine. Likewise, my Subcontinental vegetable and fruit pickles and my Kim Chee (and other Korean pickles) are also low on salt – and they turn out just fine as well. Much more tasty than store bought, without the high sodium and citric acid to burn one’s mouth. When making garum, on the other hand, I used quite a bit. Its a bit unusual for me, but let’s hope that instinct sees me through on this.
The plan is, first, to compare slow garum with a “fast” method utilizing a yogurt maker or crock pot. Then if we get good product, I’m going to make a whole variety of garums like the Romans would have used – oenogarum – garum mixed with different wines, another preparation mixing garum with must; oxygarum – garum mixed with vinegar and meligarum – garum mixed primarily with honey. I also hope to try several different herbal recipes used to flavor the garum for different foods. So, stay tuned – updates will be posted as add-ons to this post. (Words and photos of garum making by Laura Kelley; garum by Laura Kelley and son.)
The Garum Diaries
June 28/Day 3: There is a fishy odor when the container is unsealed, but the surface is still salty white. We are happy that the odor is fishy and not a rotten smell – we take that to be a good sign. The salt is damp to the touch. A quick probe down into the bucket shows a lot of liquid about 3-4 inches down. The fish are intact and show no sign of decay. The liquid is tan to light brown in color. Fish and salt are packed in tight and the container resealed for a few more days.
July 1/Day 7: The surface salt is wet and “mushy” in a couple of places. Clearly, the amount of liquid is increasing in the container. No bad smell even when unsealed, it just smells fishy like a fish counter in a market.
July 9/Day 15: The surface of the salt is a little bit wet across the entire face of the bucket. A couple of areas have an amber-colored stain on them – probably areas where I pressed the salt down to draw liquid on the last check. Not stirrable, yet. No bad smell even when unsealed, it just smells fishy like a fish counter in a market. A number of toads congregating nearby – I wonder if the odor is drawing them near.
July 17/Day 23: Clearish liquid up to an inch deep on one half of the container. Salt is stained light amber almost across the whole surface. Fish is still quite solid beneath the surface. I think if I stopped the process now, rinsed and gutted the fish and dried it part way, it would be “salted fish” as in “salted fish with chicken and chive flowers”. Not stirrable, though liquid is building on the surface. Odor is mild as in previous posts. No signs of wild beasties nearby.
July 24/Day 30: Light amber liquid building up on surface of salt. Salt is stirrable and beginning to dissolve to 3-4 inches down. Fish feels harder than before as if the liquid is seeping out of it. We stirred only the surface and then packed it down hard and resealed the bucket. Odor is mild as in previous posts and cannot be detected at all until unsealed. The recent high temperatures (over 100 F) have been helping the process along nicely.
July 30/Day 36: What a difference a week makes! The salt was moist and colored tan to amber and covered with a layer of clear and amber liquid a couple of inches deep. I stirred the bucket from top to bottom and there was a lot of liquid down below that is now distributed more evenly throughout the bucket. The smell is mild, again like a fish counter in a market. This is because the fish isn’t rotting, it is digesting itself. After stirring, the bucket was mostly liquid with fish in it – it is no longer hard packed in salt. We resealed the bucket and will wait another few days to a week.
August 7/Day 44: Salt is largely dissolved into a tan to light brown liquid. Fish are soft and parts are dissolving as well. After breaking up residual salt on the bottom, bucket is roughly stirrable with a long broom handle. The odor is still mild. We try to get as much of the fish below the surface of the liquid as we can and reseal for another few days to a week. The plan is to play this out till the end of September and then see if the product is harvestable.
September 17/Day 85: We’re still at it. There is simply not a lot of change to report. When it is still, it is quite liquid, and then after stirring, it is more of a mush as the fish and salt get broken up. Still no severe smell. Not sure now if we are going to stop it yet, or let it continue on for a few more months.