a condiment essential to cookery in classical times. See also: Apicius, fish sauce.

Garum was made by fermenting fish, in a manner apparently very similar to that used in the present-day production of southeast Asian fish sauces. While these sauces may sound (and often smell) unappealing to many noses when presented alone, they are a core condiment in many standard SE Asian dishes today, as was garum in Classical Roman cuisine.

There were many methods of garum production, involving the use of many different types of fish. These ranged from whole small fish, often of the genus Atherina (which includes the sand-smelt and other varieties common to the Mediterranean), as well as anchovy, mullet or sea bream. Larger fish used in production included tuna and mackerel. Sometimes the entrails of larger fish were also used.

The sauce itself consisted of the liquid drawn off after salted fish had fermented for about two months. Garum was also often known as liquamen.

Production was generally a commercial undertaking, not a domestic activity, due presumably to the smell. (In Byzantine times garum manufacture was banned from towns and villages due to the resultant smell.)

Garum was used most often in places where salt or soy sauce might be used in modern cuisines.

In the West, garum fell out of favor during medieval times. Disparaging comments appear from a Bishop Liutprand of Cremona, who was not impressed with its presence in dishes served to him during a 949 visit to Constantinople.

Davidson has noted that an “authentic” garum was advertised in a 19th-century British cookery book, The Household Manager (1868), though the lack of any later references elsewhere suggests the venture was not a great success. Some kindred products survive in the Mediterranean, for instance, peï salat.

Those wishing to recreate Roman dishes today often substitute Vietnamese nuoc mam in places where the use of garum is indicated.

According to schist, worcestershire sauce still counts anchovies among its ingredients. Schist suggests this might be a vestige from the Roman occupation of Britain.

However, Alan Davidson's article (see sourcenote below) on Worcester(shire) sauce suggests quite a different origin, involving an accidental oversight in a Worcester chemist's shop, Lea Perrin's. A barrel of spice vinegar was prepared according to an Indian recipe, but was never picked up by the customer. The shopkeeper discovered the brew some years later, when it had fermented, nearly threw it out, but happened to taste the contents first, whereupon he bottled the contents as a sauce, sold them, and began to produce more. Further details can be found in Davidson.


Sources: Alan Davidson The Oxford Companion to Food (1999)