Garum – Its not as Roman as You Think!

Roman Fish Mosaic
Roman Fish Mosaic

I had the pleasure recently to be a guest on Eat This Podcast with Jeremy Cherfas. On the show, Jeremy and I spoke about the fish sauce garum, how to make it, its origins (not Roman), and its many uses in cooking and as a table condiment. I hope you enjoy the show and consider making some garum for yourself! I also hope that you continue to listen to Eat This Podcast Its a great source of eclectic information about food and cuisines.  Jeremy writes:

Garum is one of those ancient foods that everyone seems to have heard of. It is usually described as “fermented fish guts,” or something equally unappealing, and people often call it the Roman ketchup, because they used it so liberally on so many things. Fermented fish guts is indeed accurate, though calculated to distance ourselves from it. And garum is just one form of fermented fish; there’s also liquamen, muria. allec and haimation. All this I learned from Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet. Unlike most of the people who opine on garum, and who offer recipes for quick garum, she painstakingly created the real deal. She is also convinced that it isn’t really Roman in origin. We only think of it that way because history is written by the victors not the vanquished.  And then there’s the whole question of the Asian fish sauces, Vietnamese nước mắm and the rest of them. Independent discovery, or copied from the Romans?

Other interviews I’ve done are available on the sidebar MP3 Player as well.

Ancient Roman Pork with Apples

Our trip to Moonfire Orchard left us with a wonderful selection of heirloom apples that I have been experimenting with. One of the recipes that I’ve been developing that is a real keeper is one for Ancient Roman Pork and Apples. It is an ancient recipe that balances sweet, sour, salty and bitter. And yes, it uses garum or liquamen so the umami factor for this one is through the roof! The recipe is from Apicius (4.3.4) and called Minutal Matianum in the original Latin.

One of the interesting things about the recipe is that the pork is twice cooked. Yes, this is one of the way that Romans prepared pork leftovers – by cooking them with leeks and apples with herbs, spices, garum, honey, vinegar and the grape syrup known as defruitum. The way I’ve been making it, it has a sweet and sour flavor that is reminiscent of an Alsatian Sauerkraut with Apples that is an old family favorite. But like most ancient recipes, the ingredients have no amounts associated with them, so a large amount of variation in flavor is possible. if you want it sweeter than I’ve written it – make it so! The original recipe and a simple translation follows. After that are my notes and my adaptation of the recipe.

ADICIES IN CACCABUM OLEUM, LIQUAMEN, COCTURAM, CONCIDES PORRUM, CORIANDRUM, ESICIA MINUTA. SPATULAM PORCINAM COCTAM TESSELLATIM CONCIDES CUM SUA SIBI TERGILLA. FACIES UT SIMUL COQUANTUR. MEDIA COCTURA MALA MATIANA PURGATA INTRINSECS CONCISA TESSELLATIM MITTES. DUM COQUITUR, TERES PIPER, CUMINUM, CORIANDRUM VIRIDEM VEL SEMEM, MENTAM, LASERIS RADICEM, SUFFUNDES ACETUM, MEL, LIQUAMEN, DEFRITUM MODICE ET IUS DE SUO SIBI, ACETO MODICO TEMPERABIS. FACIES UT FERVEAT. CUM FERBUERIT, TRACTAM CONFRINGES ET EX EA OBLIGAS, PIPER ASPARGES ET INFERES.

Put in a sauce pan oil, broth finely chopped leeks, coriander, small tid-bits, cooked pork shoulder, cut into long strips including the skin, have everything equally half done. Add Matian apples cleaned, the core removed, slice lengthwise and cook them together: meanwhile crush pepper, cumin, green coriander, or seeds, mint, laser root, moistened with vinegar, honey and garum and a little reduced must, add to this the broth of the above morsels, vinegar to taste, boil, skim, bind strain over the morsels sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Ancient Roman Pork with Apples
Ancient Roman Pork with Apples

One thing to keep in mind is that unless you cook Ancient Roman recipes frequently and have defruitum on hand, you will have to make it in advance. This simply requires boiling down grape juice until it becomes a syrup. Making defruitum is simple to do, but time consuming. Depending how much you are making, it can take a while and has to be done on low heat to avoid burning the syrup. I recently made a batch and boiled down 64 oz of juice to about 16-20 oz of defruitum. Although most recipes for defruitum say that it is boiled down by half, this is based on crushing fresh grapes and letting them sit in skins for a day or two before straining and reducing. I think that the crushing and sitting may change the consistency a bit when compared to the bottled 100% grape juice that I used. I went by the consistency which is lightly thickened and robustly flavored NOT a true syrup like sapa. I suggest making the defruitum a few days in advance of trying the Ancient Roman Pork with Apples recipe.

Also, as it is a, ‘what to do with leftovers’ dish, the pork has to be cooked in advance. If you don’t have a pound of pork leftover from your last feast, you can boil the meat in enough water to cover in the morning, let it cool and make this recipe at night. I’ve taken to adding some crushed peppercorns to the water to flavor the meat and it is a delicious touch.

For this recipe I used very large Gold Rush apples which have a powerful, complex flavor. It also keeps its shape during cooking, so the apples do not break down into applesauce. So, flavor is important when choosing apples, but form and ability to withstand cooking is also important.

This recipe also calls for garum or liquamen the fish sauce of the ancients.  If you have a vat on hand (as I do) harvest some and use.  If not, use some Asian fish sauce as an alternative.

Lastly, asafoetida has been substituted for laser root (silphion). Silphion is thought to be a now extinct member of the Ferula genus. Asafoetida, although offering a more crude onion-garlic flavor, is a the best substitute.

Ancient Roman Pork With Apples

Ingredients

1 pound pork shoulder or tenderloin, roasted or boiled and sliced lengthwise into strips
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
1/8 pound ground pork or beef
1½ tablespoons garum or fish sauce
3 leeks, cleaned and sliced in long thin strips, separated into white and green parts
3 teaspoons cumin seed, partially crushed
3 teaspoons coriander seed, partially crushed
4-5 long-pepper catkins, crushed
Handful of fresh mint leaves
1 small bunch, cilantro minced
½ cup beef or chicken broth or liquid from par-boiling the pork
1/3 – ½ cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 large pinches of asafoetida
2 large firm apples, peeled and sliced lengthwise
¼ cup defruitum (reduced grape juice)
1 teaspoon cracked pepper for garnish

Preparation

  • Make defruitum. For this recipe use a white grape juice variety.
  • Harvest garum or buy fish sauce
  • If necessary cook and cool pork. If you do not have sufficient leftovers from a large pork roast, boil the meat in enough water to cover for 5-7 minutes and then cool in its juice. If boiling the meat, throw some additional crushed peppercorns into the water to season.

Method

  1. Place butter or oil in a large sauce pan and warm over medium or medium-low heat. Add ground meat and sauté – breaking up the meat into tiny tidbits as you stir. Add about 1 tablespoon of the garum, stir and warm. Add the white parts of the leeks and cover and cook for a few minutes until the vegetables start to wilt.
  2. Add cumin, coriander seed and long pepper all lightly crushed and stir. Add the mint, cilantro and stir again. Add broth or water from parboiling the pork to moisten the contents of the pan. Then add the vinegar and stir well while the liquid warms. Add the honey, remaining garum, and asafoetida and stir again.
  3. Add the pork and green part of the leeks, stir and cover to warm. When the pork has warmed, add the apples, stir and cover. After about five minutes add the defruitum and stir again. Cook another five minutes – or until the apples are just done – and remove from the heat. With this amount of liquid, I felt no need to bind the sauce with a roux or corn starch as suggested in th original recipe. If you wish to make a thick sauce, remove the solids from the pot and make a sauce. Otherwise, garnish with cracked pepper and serve. Excellent with barley or millet, or all by itself.

One of the things I like most about this dish is how it changes as you eat it. The combination of vinegar and the sugars from the honey and defruitum fill the room during proparation. When you first eat it (as written) the bitter turns to sweet, then there is that incredible savory of the garum followed by the sharp crack of all tthat pepper to form a perfect symphony of a dish.

Its a bit of work if you don’t have the defruitum on hand, but I hope you give this one a try – its a path back to an ancient Roman meal along the Silk Road. (Words and adaptation of Apician recipe by Laura Kelley. Photo of Ancient Roman Pork with Apples by Laura Kelley).

A New Oenogarum

Deciphering and reinventing ancient recipes is an inexact skill.  To some degree, it is more like alchemy than anything else.  There is a touch of science in the linguistic, historical or archaeological research; a touch of art in the choosing of ingredients and their relative quantities; and a touch of faith or intuition in what feels right from a culinary point of view.  The mark of the cook, chef or the interpreter and the decisions they made along the way is always present in the final dish.

As regular readers of the website know, many, or perhaps most ancient recipes have little or no information about the quantities of ingredients to add.  I believe that this is purposeful, to provide general flavor guidelines and allow cooks to decide what sort of dish is being produced from a soup to a braised dish to a roast etc.  Sometimes, however, the method is explicit: boil this, then roast, and there is little room for improvisation, although many cooks ignore these instructions when unfamiliar methods are proposed, as with boiling meats.

Long Pepper (Piper longum)

Another uncertainty is the surety of the cook with ingredients and their equivalency with modern ingredients.  For example, in most Roman texts, the word “pepper” is used in a generic sense.  It could mean black pepper, white pepper or long pepper (Piper longum).  In antiquity, long pepper was the most expensive and the most sharply flavored of the three, white pepper was gentle in flavor and intermediate in price and black pepper was the people’s pepper:  relatively cheap and strongly, but crudely flavored. The choice of the type of pepper depended upon the flavor desired for the dish, and the size of the diner’s purse.  Today, most cooks unfortunately interpret this ingredient to be black pepper and thus limit the variation potentially associated with the dish.

My Homemade Garum

One of the ingredients (or famiy of ingredients) in ancient Roman cookery that remains somewhat elusive for modern cooks is oenogarum.  That is wine mixed with the fish sauce garum or liquamen that is derived from fish digested with salt and its own intestinal enzymes.  Contrary to what many would expect, the garum or liquamen doesn’t bear a particularly strong fish or salt taste.  Rather it enhances the flavor of other foods with its high glutamic acid content.  (To read more about garum and my attempts to make it see this post and this post and check out the posts listed under the rubric Roman Cookoff.)  All this said, there are only rough descriptions of how to produce garum or liquamen in ancient manuscripts.  The type and amount of fish vary extensively as do the amount and type of salt and the digestion time.  Modern attempts to recreate garum or liquamen by myself and others (notably by historic cook Sally Grainger) are all equal parts research, opinion and intuition.  When all is said and done, we are all only approximating the Roman sauces, not really reconstructing them.

In ancient Roman recipes, oenogarum is used in two different culinary circumstances: 1.) In the kitchen to flavor foods and construct sauces, and 2.) As a condiment or dipping sauce at the table.  As an ingredient to sauces, oenogarum is mixed with many herbs and spices from lovage and pennyroyal to long pepper and crushed cloves depending upon the food item to be enhanced.  At the table, the ingredients tended to be more limited and sometime included a dash of vinegar, honey or a sweet and thick fruit or wine syrup.

A Glass of Roman Wine

Many problems surround the reconstruction of these sauces, but the biggest issue is we really have no idea what Roman wine was like.  Was it strong?  Was it sweeter or more sour than wines of today, and what quality was used in the kitchen for the construction of sauces?  From Pliny the Elder (NH 14.8) we know that a cup of Falernian wine would catch fire from a candle flame drawn too close.  From this we can assume that at least this variety was much stronger than our wines today.  We also know that some sweet wines were thoroughly enjoyed, especially some sweet white wines.

The ability to age was a desirable trait in Roman wines, with mature examples from older vintages fetching higher prices than that from the current vintage, regardless of its overall quality. Roman law codified the distinction between “old” and “new” as whether wine had aged for at least a year. Falernian was particularly valued for its aging ability, said to need at least 10 years to mature but being at its best between 15 and 20 years. The white wine from Surrentine was said to need at least 25 years.

In the manner of Greek wine, Roman wine was often flavored with herbs and spices and was sometimes stored in resin-coated containers, giving it a flavor similar to modern retsina.  Additionally, honey or must was added to some wines, such as Mulsum to enhance and sweeten their flavor before serving.  Romans were particularly interested in a wine’s bouquet or aroma.  One technique used to enhance the bouquet was to plant herbs such as lavender and thyme in the vineyards, believing that their flavors would pass through the ground and into the grapes.  Another widespread practice was the storage of amphorae in a smoke chamber called a fumarium to add smokiness to a wine’s flavor.

The finest wine was reserved for the upper classes of Rome. Below that was posca, a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned into vinegar.  Posca’s use as soldiers’ rations was codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis and amounted to around a liter per day.  Still lower in quality was lora, which was made by soaking the pomace of grape skins already pressed twice in water for a day, and then pressing a third time. Cato and Varro recommended lora for their slaves. Both posca and lora were the most commonly available wine for the general Roman populace and probably would have been for the most part red wines.

Olivia Brion Pinot Noir, 2007

With all this uncertainty about garum and liquamen and an additional amount of uncertainty about Roman wine, one approach is to start anew in the recreation of oenogarum.  This is exactly what I’ve done with a little help from vintner, David Mahaffey, the genius behind Heron Valley Vineyard’s Olivia Brion wines. I requested David’s help, because who better than a master vintner to help
concoct a modern oenogarum.

Working with my garum and his own Olivia Brion 2009 Syrah, David came up with a formula pleasing to his modern expert palate. He chose the silky and concentrated syrah because he was cooking a wild boar shot on the vineyard grounds and thought that the red would work better with that meat. He writes, “After a little experimentation, I decided that the right proportional volume of syrah to garum was 225ml wine to 50ml garum–that seemed to have the right fruit to savory balance.” I find David’s choice interesting because many historical cooks use a 1:1 ratio, that for me, at least, is much too heavy on the garum. David’s ratio of about 4.5:1 (wine:garum) works extremely well from a culinary point of view as a sauce to prep dishes with in the kitchen.

I also find David’s choice of his syrah interesting from a historical point of view as well. Pliny the Elder wrote about the wines of Vienne (which today would be called Côte-Rôtie), where the Allobroges made famous and prized wine from a dark-skinned grape variety that was at that time new to the Roman world (NH 14.3). It has been speculated that it could be today’s Syrah, although some have argued that the description of the wine would also fit Dureza grapes. So good on you David!

Mushrooms with Oenogarum and Long Pepper

I used David’s oenogarum formula with a less expensive but good Shiraz to cook Mushrooms al la Apicius (7.8.15) to accompany a Roman lamb dish my husband served up that evening. The Apician recipe calls for the mushrooms (or, specifically morels) to be cooked quickly in garum and pepper and then drained. I used oenogarum and long pepper to make a nice side dish that worked very well with the lamb. The oenogarum enhanced the flavor of the mushrooms with a hint of the shiraz and also was the sole source of salt for the dish, and the long pepper added just enough peppery spiciness that worked wonderfully with the mushrooms (morels were not available locally for love or money so I used meaty, portobello caps). Mushrooms prepared thus could also be used in an egg dish like a kuku or an omelet, or mixed with other vegetables for another great presentation. One new oenogarum potion down, many more to go.

A Roman Mushroom Dish
(based on Apicius (7.8.15))

1 pound Portobello Mushroom caps
1.5 cups good Shiraz (or Syrah)
1/3 cup garum or liquamen
4-5 long pepper catkins, crushed or ground

Clean thoroughly and slice the mushrooms into bite-sized morsels and set aside. Mix wine and garum and mix well but gently.

In a large saute pan, warm the oenogarum and long pepper over medium-low flame until it is hot. Do not let it come to a boil. When hot, add the mushrooms. Cook uncovered until mushrooms have given off their own water and have become tender. Remove from flame and drain the mushrooms. If desired, catch the liquid from the pan and use it to flavor another dish for the same meal. Works very nicely with grain dishes such as barley. Enjoy!

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Homemade Garum and Mushrooms with Oenogarum and Long Pepper by Laura Kelley.  Photo of Long Pepper from Wikimedia Commons; Photo of Roman Wine by Deana Sidney and Photo of Olivia Brion Pinot Noir borrowed from the Olivia Brion website.  Special thanks to David Mahaffey for beginning to help solve the ancient puzzle that is oenogarum.)

Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 6: A Roman Roast Lamb Chop

My husband was drawn into the spirit of the cook-off again and prepared an elegant and delicious Roman roast lamb chop for us. He based his recipe on Apicius 8.6.8: The Raw Kid or Lamb: Haedus Sive Agnus Crudus. The original directions are about as simple as simple can be and read: “Is rubbed with oil and pepper and sprinkled with plenty of clean salt and coriander seed, placed in the oven and served roast”. He made one addition to the recipe. He sprinkled some garum on the just roasted chop just after taking them out of the oven to rest before serving to add some of the garum magic to the roast lamb.

Roman Roast Lamb Chops

Ingredients
4 large bone-in lamb chops
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
11/2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons coriander seed
1-2 teaspoons garum (if available)

Method
Grind the peppercorns by hand in a mortar. I usually prefer a coarse ground to a fine one. When ground to the desired degree, mix the ground pepper with the olive oil in a small bowl and let the pepper infuse the oil while you grind the coriander seed. When the coriander seed is done, mix it with the salt and set aside.

Pierce the chops several times with the tines of a fork and then thoroughly rub the oil and pepper mixture on both sides. Let sit for at least 20-30 minutes. Then rub on the mixture of salt and ground coriander seed on one side of the chops and place this side face down on the broiler rack. Rub the side facing up with the remaining mix and let sit for an additional 20-30 minutes. Preheat the broiler to high while the meat is being seasoned.

Place under broiler at least several inches from the flame and cook 4-5 minutes a side; adjust cooking times to size and thickness of the chop. When done, remove from broiler and sprinkle garum over the chops. Let rest at least 5 minutes before serving.

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Steve writes: Back when Laura started her garum experiment, I got interested in some of the things that she was cooking. I’ve always liked historical cooking and so decided to try some things on my own. However finding a recipe that would not take me all day to cook AND that could feed our kids as well as ourselves was a challenge. I came across a version of this recipe for roast lamb and it seemed simple and would not require a lot of unusual ingredients, but would allow me to experiment with the garum as an addition. As we found with other recipes, the garum does not give the food a fish flavor, but instead enhances the flavors that are present in the dish. Even our kids, who are notoriously finicky, enjoyed it and didn’t notice the garum at all. (Words by Stephen and Laura Kelley. Photo of A Roman Roast Lamb Chop by Laura Kelley).