Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Garum Scarum

The study of history is a fascinating subject. While Americans are a mixture of many, many societies, we have absorbed a lot of things from the ancient world, most notably Rome. We are a surprisingly similar people, especially in the food department. Ancient Rome had an obesity problem just like we do, and they invented (or replicated) most of our favorite foods, including hamburgers, hot dogs, the traditional Thanksgiving roast (granted, it was peacock not turkey, but they're very similar birds), and even developed a love of sweets of all kinds, and most notably a cheesecake made with honey instead of sugar.

Still, things they liked are a bit different from what we have now. Take, for example, the Roman ketchup: Garum.

Please, take it. Take it and take it far away.

All over the Mediterranean, ruins of large, basin shaped structures can be found, with various large pits in the ground the size of large cisterns. It was here that garum was produced. What was garum? Garum was a sort of fish sauce, made by mixing various dead fish with salt, various herbs and spices, and a little bit of wine.

We're told by Roman cook Apicius that garum was a pungent, flavorful sauce, and he used it in nearly all of his recipes. Cicero loved it, and Martial wrote "Accept this exquisite garum, a precious gift made with the first blood spilled from a living mackerel."


Gargilius Martialis (Martial), De Medicina et de Virtute Herbarum:

Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.

Mmmmmmmmmmm.... doesn't rotting fish goop sound DELICIOUS?

One time in high school, we tried it. We made a small batch, and it actually turned out (surprisingly) tasty. We came up with a bunch of things to do with it, which I'll describe in a bit.

The thing is, making the shit stank. My neighbors hated me. It was some foul smelling, but tasty stuff, and I knew I could replicate it with simple household goods. I got to work.

You will need:

A quart of grape juice (the good stuff premixed... if you can get it organic, use that)
Two tablespoons anchovy paste
Oregano, dill, coriander, basil (a little goes a long way here, but you definitely want more basil than anything else)

Put the quart of grape juice in a kettle on the stove. Boil it until it's about one-tenth of it's original volume. Dilute the anchovy paste into the juice, and add the herbs. Stew for a bit (5-10 minutes at most) while covered, and then QUICKLY bottle it. You should have enough for a family sized supply, but make sure it's ALWAYS refrigerated, and throw it out after a few weeks.

But now that you have it... WHAT DO YOU DO WITH IT?!!

Try the Roman Hamburger!

Pound of GOOD ground beef... if you can get ground veal, use that.
Pine nuts
2 cloves garlic
1 sprig of basil
Your freshly made garum
Enough ciabatta rolls

Mash the garlic, chop the basil, and crunch the pine nuts. Put in a few tablespoons of the garum into the meat, and then add the garlic-basil-pine nuts. Form the meat into healthy sized patties, and grill over a wood fire. Serve the Roman Burgers on top of the ciabatta rolls, and eat while watching "Caligula", then see how long you can keep it down. Serve with chianti or some other wine served with a basket on the bottle.

Garum has other uses, too. Historians debate whether or not the Romans knew of pasta, but they know they certainly did know of gnocchi-like dumplings, and it's not hard to imagine them rolling them flat and boiling them. Marco Polo's "discovery" seems a little farfetched, unless the Dark Ages really were that dark. I don't believe it, myself.

Get yourself some really good pasta, and put some of your garum on top, with some shredded parmesan on top. You've got yourself a fine meal.

Got steak? Garum is a terrific steak sauce. Got pita? Garum and some shaved pork make terrific little pita sandwiches. The options with garum are endless. It sounds truly awful, but just make up a batch and trust me on it. You'll enjoy it.


Anonymous Frodo said...

I am... I am afraid to try doing this. Maybe I should just go to an authentic Roman restaurant and order it there?

7:25 PM  

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