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 3: Patella with Sardines and Garum by Caterina G

Patella of Sardines and Garum

Italian abroad, webmistress of La Caffettiera Rosa and friend of Silk Road Gourmet, Caterina G, has tried her hand at an Ancient Roman recipe for the cookoff: Patella with Sardines and Garum. It is another egg-based dish that in Caterina’s hands became something like a frittata flavored with fish and the garum that I sent her from my production run here in the US.  She writes:

“A few days ago a gift arrived at my door. It had travelled from the US and through time as well. I was holding in my hand a small bottle of home produced garum. I opened it and was hit in the face by a strong, strong smell. Fishy? Not quite. The manufacturer is Laura Kelley, the talented author and researcher; the recipe source is Roman. Garum is a mysterious historical relict. Fish, in this case mackerel, is piled with salt and left to mature at room temperature for a few weeks, then distilled to an almost clear liquor (read Laura’s post for much more information). Fish sauces are alive and kicking in the Far East, but they are not common any more in the Mediterranean. In Roman times, however, this great-grandfather of nuoc mam was a prized and popular ingredient.  Why did we stop using it? It is a mystery. In Italy colatura di alici is still produced with a similar process, but it certainly is no common ingredient.

The legacy in Italy from Rome is huge. At school I have studied Latin for almost eight years. I know Roman history better than any other period – this actually proves my generic ignorance in the subject more than anything else. They made us translate detailed accounts of battles, political treacheries, blood facts, epic legends, and heartbreaking love poems. But there is one topic I don’t remember studying or translating: food. If I have to tell you what I imagine about the food of the Romans, my main source is the comics series of Asterix. I’m not sure about its authenticity, but surely there is a lot of food related scenes in it, and it makes for a funny read.

One common belief about Roman food is that it was decadent. Images of wealthy Roman patrizi, leaning on sofas and eating pigs stuffed with birds stuffed with fish stuffed with grapes, served by naked beautiful slaves, come to mind. I thought Apicius was one of the main promoters of this image, but it is probably more down to Asterix, I have to say. I finally took the chance to read the book (translated, imperial Latin is not my forte any more) and I found it to be refined, surely, but with very few involved and truly decadent dishes. Not to say that it was not interesting, mind you. It was. Some combinations are surprisingly modern, closer to Middle East cooking than Italian one, with its mix of sweet and savoury.


To test garum, I chose a recipe that sounded weird and exotic and decadent as much as I could. I settled for  patella de apua, or depending on the transcription, patina de apua fricta (book IV, recipe 147). A literal translation could be sardine dish, fried or not. Whether the fish is fried, or the dish, is not clear. There is no indication of frying in the recipe itself however. The main ingredients are apua, or sardines, and eggs. This is the original recipe, as translated by Vehling  (the full book is available here on Project Gutenberg):

SARDINE LOAF (OR OMELETTE) IS MADE IN THIS MANNER  CLEAN THE SARDINES [of skin and bones]; BREAK [and beat] EGGS AND MIX WITH [half of the] FISH; ADD TO THIS SOME STOCK, WINE AND OIL, AND FINISH [the composition] BY HEATING IT. WHEN DONE TO A POINT, ADD [the remaining part of the] SARDINES TO IT, LET IT STAND A WHILE [over a slow fire to congeal] CAREFULLY TURN OVER [dish it up] MASK WITH A WARM WINE SAUCE, SPRINKLE WITH PEPPER AND SERVE.  (see translation notes for additional details).

From the procedure it is not quite clear what this dish is: it could be anything from a sort of souffle to a frittata. As much as the ingredient combination sounded unusual to me, I found out that several modern versions exist egg dishes with fresh sardines or anchovies.  Most Italian versions include some cheese like pecorino or parmigiano, with parsley and garlic to add aroma. Some spanish tortilla recipes sound quite similar to Apicius: many have a layer of beaten eggs, the fish is added on top after a while, more eggs are used to cover it, and the tortilla is turned at last.

Sardines – chopped

I went with what I knew. I made a frittata, adding the fish in two times although that sounded a bit weird. Sardines are a good, sustainable source of fish. Although bones are not an issue in the sardines I buy in Italy, I found the bones in the Cornish ones available here to be more abundant, thicker and harder to get rid of, should you want to. This is the only caveat I feel I should add to the recipe: if you are squeamish about fish bones, this recipe is not for you. From a taste point of view, though, it was a total success. It does not taste weird, it does taste complex and delicious and slightly unusual. The eggs and the fish are distinctively sweet, and the wine and garum sauce I made up, trying to recreate the elusive oenogarum, added a savoury and acidic note that stroke an amazing balance, overall. The garum tastes of fish, but not much. The aroma is so intense it is quite difficult to describe it. It is more aromatic, indeed, that the Far East equivalent I have tried so far, although I’ve yet to try a high quality one. It is also quite salty and very potent. Initially I thought the oenogarum to be too strong and salty: with the eggs, it was not.

If you are curious about what other people made of garum, there are several entries at Laura’s. If you want to try some of these recipes without having garum, I’d probably use a mixture of nuoc mam and melter salted anchovies in oil: go for the best you can buy. There are also plenty of recipes in Apicius that don’t really include garum, or where it can convincingly be replaced by salt.

Frittata of sardines
Ingredients (for two)
3 large  fresh sardines (350 gr, about)
2 eggs
white pepper
1/2 teaspoon garum
1 tablespoon dry white wine
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons olive oil

For the oenogarum (wine sauce)
150 ml white wine
4-5 pepper corns, whole
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon garum

For the wine sauce: bring wine, bay leaf and pepper to the boil. Boil until reduced to more than half of the initial volume, add the garum and turn off the heat.

Clean the sardines into fillets (you can keep the skin if you like it). Beat eggs, wine, pepper, a dash of garum, a tablespoon of oil  and water to a mixture. Add some salt, sparingly. Mix in half of the sardine fillets. In a smallish non-stick pan add a tablespoon of oil, then the egg mixture. Cook for a few minutes until the bottom is almost set. Add the remaining sardines, cover and cook gently for a further five minutes. When the top is solid, slide to a dish, turn and put back on the fire for another couple of minutes.

To serve, drizzle the frittata with the wine sauce (taste before adding all of it, you may find it is too salty and you don’t need it all) and add some freshly ground white pepper.”


Caterina found that actually reading Apicius and setting about cooking some of the dishes from it changed her view of what Ancient Roman food was like. She had grown up thinking that all of the dishes with complex and decadent and was happily surprised to see some straight-forward dishes like the Patella she cooked for the Ancient Roman cookoff. She writes that she found, “The eggs and the fish are distinctively sweet, and the wine and garum sauce I made up, trying to recreate the elusive oenogarum, added a savoury and acidic note that stroke an amazing balance, overall. The garum tastes of fish, but not much. The aroma is so intense it is quite difficult to describe it. It is more aromatic, indeed, that the Far East equivalent I have tried so far, although I’ve yet to try a high quality one. It is also quite salty and very potent. Initially I thought the oenogarum to be too strong and salty: with the eggs, it was not.”

Check out her post to read more about Caterina’s experience cooking Ancient Roman food with garum. (Words by Laura Kelley unless indicated.  Photo of Patella with Sardines and Garum by Caterina G.)

Ancient Roman Cookoff Entry 2: Two Sauces for Fowl and a Patina of Asparagus and Grouse by Deana Sidney

Patina of Asparagus and Grouse by Deana Sidney

Friend of Silk Road Gourmet, Ms. Deana Sidney, of Lost Past Remembered has cooked several recipes with the garum I sent her.
From her magical kitchen come two sauces for chicken or fowl and a cold patina of asparagus and grouse (or figpecker, should you have one on hand) that use the garum I produced in the backyard last year.

Please check out her post, recipes and stories about one of Rome’s baddest Emperors – Heliogabalus. Deana writes, “the green sauces for the chicken are not unlike a more complex pesto that would become ubiquitous in Italian cuisine a millennium or so later. The Romans loved sauces and I loved the many recipes for the sauces so much, I just couldn’t stop at one so made two, both are fabulous.”

The patina which is made with eggs and not sheets or dough or “noodles” like those used in lasagna is a lot like a modern quiche.  The eggs are flavored with a mixture of wine and garum called oenogarum – with delicious results.

Also, be in awe of Deana’s beautifully composed photos like the one above – with fresh azalea blossoms strewn across the spring table.  And lastly, look forward to more dishes using garum in the Roman cookoff in the days and weeks ahead. Deana writes: “The green sauces for the chicken are not unlike a more complex pesto that would become ubiquitous in Italian cuisine a milennium or so later. The Romans loved sauces and I loved the many recipes for the sauces so much, I just couldn’t stop at one so made 2, both are fabulous.  Although I could only guess at the proportions, one turned out slightly sweet and the other slightly tangy. They are delicious with salmon.

The asparagus ‘quiche’ is brilliantly flavored and accessorized with meat ( I did take the liberty of substituting grouse meat for ‘figpeckers’ but duck breast would work well as would chicken tenders if you wanted a milder flavor) and reminded me of the subtle beauty of the Japanese custard dish, chawan mushi (that I wrote about HERE).

Just a note for ingredients.  As you may have surmised, herbs like lovage and rue are not on supermarket shelves.  I sent for mine (and they arrived in 4 days) from a wonderful resource I found last year when I needed hyssop and pennyroyal for medieval recipes.   The Grower’s Exchange in Virginia has a remarkable selection of unusual herbs and beautiful plants.  The arrive in perfect condition and after 3 deliveries I can say that with confidence.   Hyssop is one of my favorite discoveries and tastes like many sweet herbs all in one plant, pennyroyal is an incredibly sweet mint that is wonderful and lovage is a good-sized perennial that looks like giant parsley and tastes like celery… you only need a bit to flavor a dish. Rue is interesting, bitter and bad for you in large quantities (like pennyroyal).  It has been used for thousands of years in cooking and as a medicine for everything from insect repellant to eye wash.

The recipes (written in capitals) that follow are taken verbatim from Apicius.  After that are my versions.

Sauce for Fowl 1


1 date, seeded
3 T broth
½ t pepper
2 t chopped lovage
2 t chopped rue
2 T toasted pine nuts
½ t powdered mustard
2 t honey
1 T garum or fish sauce
½ t celery seed
¼ c chopped parsley
3 T vinegar
1 to 2 T oil to taste

Warm the broth and soak the date in it till softened. Puree in a blender with the stock.  Add the herbs and nuts and spices, puree. Add the vinegar and oil and blend.

Sauce for Fowl 2


1 t pepper
2 t lovage
¼ c parsley
2 t mint
½ t fennel pollen
2 T wine
1 T garum or  fish sauce
¼ c roasted hazelnuts
1 t honey
2 T vinegar
2 T broth
2 T oil
½ t celery seed
1 t catmint or catnip or pennyroyal, chopped

Put first 8 ingredients into a blender and blend ingredients including the hazelnuts, then toss in the rest and grind.

Roast Chicken with Apician Sauce for Fowl

Perfect Simple Roast Chicken 1-4 pound chicken, trussed
1 T garum or fish sauce
1 t pepper
1 -2 t salt (Thomas Keller recommends liberal salting for a crisp skin… it works)

Preheat oven to 450º.  Rinse the chicken and pat dry.  Leave on a rack in the fridge for 1 hour, uncovered.  Remove then rub the chicken with garum and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Place on the rack in a pan and fill pan ½” full with stock or water (use the drippings for a lovely gravy on the side).  Cook for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.

Allow to rest 15 minutes before carving for crisp skinned but very juicy chicken.

Another Cold Asparagus Dish


Asparagus Custard with Grouse Breast

8 Asparagus cut into stalks and tips
2 T stock
2 T wine
2 T oil + 2 t oil
1 t pepper
4 eggs
1 T garum
Breasts from 1 grouse (you can get Scottish Grouse from D’Artagnan), or a D’Artagnan duck breast  or even chicken breast

Steam the asparagus tips for 5 minutes and the stalks for 8.  Chop the stalks and puree with 2 T stock.

Warm the oven to 375º.  In an ovenproof skillet, warm the pepper, oil, wine and stock for a few minutes. Whisk 4 eggs with the asparagus puree and the garum

Pour into the skillet and heat on the stovetop over medium heat for a few minutes until the eggs are slightly set on the bottom.  Put in the oven for 10 minutes.

Salt and pepper the breasts and sauté in 2 t oil for a few moments on each side and remove. Let rest for a few moments.  Slice into 3 or 4 slices each and reserve.

After the first 10 minutes, remove the skillet from the oven and lay the reserved asparagus tips and meat into the eggs which should be nearly set.  Put back in the over for 5 more minutes or until set.  Serve hot or cold.”

(Words except where indicated by Laura Kelley; adapted Roman recipe and photograph of Patina with Asparagus and Grouse and Chicken with Apician Sauce by Deana Sidney).