April 7, 2008
I'd like to point you in the direction of two few brief, not fantastic, but nevertheless interesting articles by Robert Sietsema on gourmet.com in a series entitled "Eat like a Roman". The first is about garum, a favorite condiment of the Romans.
What exactly is garum? Let's consult an ancient expert: "Another liquid, too, of a very exquisite nature, is that known as 'garuim:' it is prepared from the intestines of fish and various parts which would otherwise be thrown away, macerated in salt; so that it is, in fact, the result of their putrefaction" (Pliny the Elder, a 1st century C.E. author, from his Natural History 31.43, trans. Bostock and Riley).
The sauce was typically prepared in facilities near the sea from freshly caught fish, which were left to ferment in the sun for several months, then the resulting product was bottled and exported. While garum was produced all over the Mediterranean, certain regions were known for the quality of their garum- Spain, for instance was known to have a particularly good product. Quality was judged by region of production, type of fish used, and length of fermentation, and higher quality often meant higher price- although widely available at a range of prices, the good stuff could be very expensive.
In the gourmet.com article, the author happens across a bottle of something labeled "garum" at his local Italian market and decides to give it a shot (although whether the product he bought is the same thing as the ancient condiment is up for debate). He aptly describes the scent of the sauce as "like being swatted across the nose with a dead crab", but then, confoundingly, goes on to add it to everything he eats, including his morning coffee...what on earth possessed him to do this is beyond me.
In the second article, he goes on to actually cook a variety of "ancient Roman" dishes with the garum, with mixed results.
There are much better resources and writings about ancient Roman cuisine out there- I'll try to round some up and post them sometime in the near future (suggestions welcome). But it's always fun and very interesting to see modern-day people attempt to witness and understand aspects of life in the past, especially through the strange cultural expression that is food.