Here fishy, fishy (sauce)
If you've ever dug around in any Ancient Roman recipes, one thing that you'll see listed over and over again is garum, or liquamen. These were very similar sauces, and interchanged so commonly that at one time they were synonyms.
This is a mosaic in Pompeii depicting an amphora of garum. It reads "From the workshop of Scaurus."
But what was garum? Here's a snippet from 10th century Byzantium explaining how it was made:
What is called liquamen is thus made: the intestines of fish are thrown into a vessel, and are salted; and small fish, especially atherinae, or small mullets, or maenae, or lycostomi, or any small fish, are all salted in the same manner; and they are seasoned in the sun, and frequently turned; and when they have been seasoned in the heat, the garum is thus taken from them. A small basket of close texture is laid in the vessel filled with the small fish already mentioned, and the garum will flow into the basket; and they take up what has been percolated through the basket, which is called liquamen; and the remainder of the feculence is made into allec.
Still got your appetite after that?
So, the thing is, yes, it sounds disgusting. And yes, garum factories were usually put outside of towns and cities because of how bad it smelled. And yes, it may have been responsible for the spread of fish tapeworms across Europe. But apart from all that, why was it so popular?
Umami, apparently. It's all about the umami. I'd always assumed garum would taste super fishy, but here's an interesting fact. Did you know that Worcestershire sauce is also based on fermented anchovies? It certainly doesn't taste fishy to me.
So I've decided to give garum a try. Well, modern garum, which I can only assume is made in more sanitary conditions that the original, and hopefully has zero tapeworm in it. The closest thing we have to garum these days is colaturi di alici, an Italian fish sauce descended from Ancient Roman garum. I've ordered some online, and I'm impatiently waiting for its arrival.
If I post again in a fortnight, you'll know I've survived the experiment!