Making Garum – The Traditional Way

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.

Making Garum – The Traditional Way

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.)

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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.

Garum 8-7-2011

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.

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20 thoughts on “Making Garum – The Traditional Way

  1. Caffettiera

    This project is really exciting. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. Do you have any idea of how much liquid it will yield at the end, roughly? Did you have any particular reason for choosing mackerel, other than abundance? It is sardine season now and and I am in Italy for a short while; there are piles of them both at the market and in the sea. I cannot help but wonder how my mother in law will react to a barrel of rotting fish in her balcony (maybe next year..)

    Reply
    1. lauramk Post author

      Hi Caffettiera:

      No idea how much liquid my experiment will yield. If you want me to guesstimate, I would say between 1 and 2 gallons after multiple filtration – but that is based on instinct not knowledge or experience.

      As to Norweigan mackerel, there are a host of reasons that came together to lead me to select that species.

      1.) Mackerel and tuna were the most desired sources for the production of garum during Roman times. The anchovies and sardines were used when the larger species were unavailable – an everyday garum – so some idea that these species produced good product were in the mix.

      2.) The Asian market I went to had a lot of very fresh Norweigan mackerel

      3.) They were charging $1.99 per pound for the fish

      4.) The Roman writer Martial (who was really Iberian) said that mackerel made the best garum and that none other could compare.

      5.) I love the colors and design of the fish

      6.) I love the flavor of mackerel and use it extensively in cooking.

      Hope that helps.

      As to making it on your mother-in-law’s balcony, gently, but frankly, that is unlikely. It will take months – not days as some accounts have shown. I don’t know what your mother-in-law is like, but I wouldn’t inconvenience mine for more than a day or two. She is a strong woman who raised a son who likes strong women.

      Reply
  2. Nancie McDermott

    Laura, I am so delighted to be in touch with you at this moment in time, where you are a month into making a batch of fish sauce. Fascinating, beautifully and clearly narrated and photographed –thank you for this armchair 21st century tour of an ancient timeless process.

    Reply
  3. lauramk Post author

    Hi Nancie:

    Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the nice comments! I hope you stop by often – not all of the cooking is ancient on the site – a lot is simply modern from countries that traded on the Silk Road.

    Laura

    P.S. I was AFS to Thailand in 1980 and that was integral to the development of my interest in food – that and coming from a big Italian-American clan who cooked and ate all the time.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Rot around the clock « mangofantasy

  5. Tim

    This is fantastic! I’m hoping to make some tuna-gill garum (haimatum) this summer and your step-by-step guide will be a huge help. So — have you strained off the garum yet? How did it turn out?

    Reply
  6. lauramk Post author

    Hi Tim:

    Your are going right for the fanciest stuff, eh? Good luck!. Yes we have filtered it and it takes multiple attempts. I hope you are not an apartment dweller – if yes, I might consider going to a quiet park or other area so as not to offend neighbors.

    Straining in the cooler weather keeps the insects away as well.

    Need to write this up soon, as a friend in the blogosphere is going to guest post on her adventures in making and using murri in February.

    Let me know how it goes.

    Laura

    Reply
    1. Tim

      Thanks for the update! I’ll let you know if I pull mine off. (I have a friend who fishes a lot — he’ll be supplying the raw materials, else I doubt I could gather enough tuna gills, even in New York City…).

      Tim

      Reply
  7. Christina

    Hey, I’m also in the middle of a slow fermented garum project. Something I found out through research on fermentation is that it is not good to ferment in plastic containers, especially meat ferments. There are reports of inuit peoples making traditional fish ferments in modern plastic buckets and getting botulism. See “The Fish We Eat” by Anore Jones. Be careful!

    Reply
  8. lauramk Post author

    Hi Christina:

    I know a bit about infectious diseases, and plastic containers has nothing to do with the overgrowth of Clostridium botulinum in canned, digested (as is garum) or fermented foods.

    What matters is whether the bacteria gets into the food to begin with. The sources are unclean vessels, filthy hands, contaminated soil, or bacteria in the canned food item itself. Brining and salting cuts down on the likelyhood of undesired bacterial overgrowth and garum has pounds of salt on it so the potential for clostridium to grow on the digesting fish is very small indeed. The inuit have a recurring problem with this becasue the bacteria is in the fish they are fermenting.

    Thanks for the comment and advise, but I think its not an issue.

    Reply
  9. Anthony Duncan

    Wow! Great blog! I’ve been looking for someone who has made homemade garum/fish sauce for some time. I do have a question though-

    Whereabouts are you located? Not specifically of course, but I am from Indiana, USA, which can get a bit cold in the winter (down to -10 F, -23 C). Is this a problem for fish-saucing?

    Thanks for the great info!!

    Reply
    1. lauramk Post author

      Hi Anthony:

      It gets very cold here too. It shouldn’t be a problem with all that salt. At least it wasn’t for us. We just let it alone over the coldest part of the winter and started to check it and stir when Spring came and we got great results. Note that my colleague Sally Grainger uses a lot less salt to make her garum and also gets great results.

      Good Luck and keep us posted on the process.

      Out of curiosity are you a student or professor in a classical field who will be using this in a relevant class? A few folks have used the revised Mesopotamian recipes and I just like to remain aware of the way people are using the information on the site – TKS!

      Reply
      1. Anthony Duncan

        Thanks for the reply! I forgot to check back until now.

        I do not happen to be using this in a class. I graduated from Indiana University recently, and now work there as a staff member.

        Though now you mention it, there is a Classics department. Maybe I should let them know about your website!

        Thanks again, when I start my garum/fish sauce project (maybe in Spring) I’ll keep you updated!

        Reply
  10. Matt W

    I have a follow-up question to Anthony’s. Do you think heat is necessary to start the process correctly or is it just the salt that is crucial? In other words, is this a project one would need to start in the summer, or could you start anytime?

    Thanks for the article. I have also been trying to find more info on making garum, and this was a great source!

    Reply
    1. lauramk Post author

      Hi Matt:

      I think one could start it in three seasons in most places. I wouldn’t try to start it in the winter, but you could start it now when it is not really blazingly hot in most places.

      All we found was that the winter didn’t hurt the process, it just put it on hold until the Spring thaw – then the digestion continued where it left off in the autumn.

      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the compliments!

      Reply
  11. Cynthia Sebolt

    This is fantastic! I just found your adventures in garum making – now to read all about it and the recipes tried. I’m the only one of my friends crazy enough to try making it – it’s good to see others aren’t afraid of trying something different, just because it sounds icky!

    I’ve recently started my second batch of garum, using the innards of fish (rather than the whole thing). I’m making this batch in a large glass fish bowl – this way we can see it forming (much to the disgust of some friends, seeing the pictures). I’ve only done a few pounds, and I’ve been using the 8:1 ratio of fish to salt – so it seems to go a bit faster than yours, I think.

    Very cool!

    Reply
  12. Kyle Hildebrant

    Laura —

    Getting around to reading this now. This sounds excellent. Did you gut the fish, or leave intact (I understand traditionally guts play a big part). I’m getting ready to document a fish sauce of my own. Still trying to settle on a good ratio of salt to fish.

    Reply
    1. lauramk Post author

      Hi Kyle:

      I cut open the abdomen of the fish to try to prevent putrefaction, but left the guts intact. The guts are where the digestive enzymes come from to make the product. One has to have guts to make garum . . . ;>)

      The ration of salt to fish is a perplexing one and the figures available range widely. It does have to be coarse sea salt. Good Luck!

      Reply
    1. lauramk Post author

      Hi Kyle:

      I had a lot of comms with Sally leading up to the garum experiment. She is a great lady and very knowledgeable. She even participated in the Roman cookoff that I held a couple of years ago. However, I think you misread her paper. She discusses the different types of “garum” – from liquamen to haimation to allec. It is the haimation that is the blood product. They have incorrectly become lumped into one product over the years.

      BTW, I just reviewed a wonderful Viking Cookbook for EXARC – it should be published in the next issue.

      Reply

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