Romans Ate Fermented Fish Guts


Humankind has called some crazy stuff food
over the years. Different continents, cultures, and eras have
a different set of things we consider regular old food. Food history is one of the big new areas of
history research. Today, let’s talk about Garum, a strange
fish sauce that took the Roman world by storm. How was it made, how popular was it, why did
we stopped eating it, and why it might just come back. And I teamed up with Professor Elliot who
actually made and ate the stuff… Yum. I’m Tristan Johnson, and this is Step Back
History. Garum is a food that has origins all the way
back to ancient Greece. However, the first document we have about
the process of making garum comes from an astrology book of all things that dates to
the first century CE. Fishermen would process their fish and place
the blood and guts in a container with some salt. This concoction needed to ferment in the sun
for several months. Simple as that, you have garum. While garum worked as an umbrella term, there
were a variety of byproducts and qualities to the stuff. The sediment left behind in the fermentation
process goes by the name allec, a sort-of fish paste. And the brine left behind was muria. Garum itself was pretty pricey at its peak,
and was often diluted with wine, honey, vinegar, water, and or herbs. There was even a cheat method to make it by
boiling fish in a strong brine and straining the liquid. There was a wide variety of the stuff. The fish used for garum mattered a lot in
what it’s quality would be. The Romans considered tuna the top fish, the
grey poupon of fish guts. Though mackerel was also considered a top-notch
garum fish. There was also a variant where tiny fish they
would normally just throw out would go in the garum pot whole. It seems in different places, different fish
and parts of fish made up the garum, and scholars aren’t sure what was the proper way to make
it if there even was one. The stuff apparently had quite a smell to
it, but there was no rotten fish in garum. They fermented it like sauerkraut or beer. Because there’s so much salt, there’s
no bacteria or other microbes putrefying the fish parts. Garum needed fish guts because the fermentation
occurred with the help of enzymes that come from them. The sun then adds energy and helps the process
along, and the salt pickles everything. This fermentation process released a lot of
the protein from the fish, and so garum was quite nutritious. Because of this process, you wanted as little
bacteria in there as possible from fish handling. So often the places where garum was made would
be close to the sea. Garum was an integral part of Roman cuisine. One surviving Roman recipe book had garum
as an ingredient in nearly 350 of its dishes. Scholars and journalists refer to it as the
ketchup of its day, and the Roman poet Martial wrote an epigraph about the stuff. It was also pretty expensive. It cost about 500 US dollars today, but was
found in pretty much any Roman kitchen. There was fancy garum only the super wealthy
could afford. The champagne of garum if you will. And if there’s a champagne of garum, you
can bet there was the box of pink zinfandel garum even slaves could budget. The stuff even had medical applications. They considered it an ungulate in healing
for both humans and animals. They used it for scabies in their sheep, as
an antidote for dog AND crocodile bites, a salve for burns and ulcers, or as a laxative. Massive installations for making garum were
found all around the Iberian coast, especially near the strait of gibraltar where huge schools
of tuna cross from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Other factories have turned up around southern
Europe and north Africa. Another place famous for its garum was Pompeii. Yeah, the place where a volcano buried the
city, and the 12th Doctor got his face. Bones discovered in a garum factory in pompeii
helped find a more precise date for the eruption that buried them. So, why isn’t garum a staple of every kitchen
today? Well it has to do with salt. Salt was cheap in the Roman empire, but once
it collapsed, different rulers started to tax it. The price increase made garum difficult to
produce. In the wake of the Roman collapse you also
had a surge in mediterranean pirates. These pirates often raided coastal cities,
where all the garum was made. So, after the Roman empire, it pretty much
disappeared. But not entirely! A few pockets in southwest italy continued
making it. Today they make a sauce called colatura di
alici, which traces its origins to garum. It was super obscure. Most Italians didn’t even know about it,
but it’s slowly coming back. Many high end restaurants are starting to
buy it as a secret ingredient for their dishes. It’s apparently really really good, and
has a powerful umami flavour every testimonial about it online says is remarkable. Chefs are considering it a long lost missing
link in Italian cuisine. Some even call it the great grandfather of
worcestershire sauce, one of my favourites. A fish sauce which comes from southeast asia
is also rather common, and is becoming popular around the world. Their sauce is made in a similar fashion to
garum, and can be found in most asian grocery stores. So the long lost Roman ketchup might be due
for a comeback. Leave a comment below if you would want to
try this stuff. If you want to see someone eat the fermented
fish, Professor Elliot actually made and tried this stuff over on his channel. It’s part of an amusing series called Fanstastic
Feasts and where to Find them in which they try all sorts of strange foods from around
the world and back in time. I should have a clicky thing to go watch him
give Roman style garum a try. If you liked this video, maybe you should
stick around for a few more. That subscribe button will keep you up to
date on the newest Step Back videos, and with the bell you can get a notification when a
video comes out. And if you liked this, do me a favour and
share this with some of your friends on social media. The channel grows with word of mouth! Speaking of people who are making Step Back
possible, I’d like to thank these wonderful people as well as Don and Kerry Johnson for
their support on Patreon. Also thank you Professor Elliot for eating
garum so I didn’t have to. Thanks for watching and come back next week
for another Step Back.

29 Replies to “Romans Ate Fermented Fish Guts”

  1. There are few foods which I wouldn't be willing to try at least once, if I had the chance. With as popular as fish sauces are becoming today, I might even be willing to try garum more times than that! Assuming I could find it more than once.
    Or once.

  2. Thanks for the information. Perhaps the fermentation would remove the radioactivity from today's garum.
    That may the only seafood that could be even close to being safe to consume today, 6½ years after the 311 ELE.
    A S.E. Asian fish sauce? There are hundreds. I have two in my refrigerator, Red Boat 👍 and Squid 👎

  3. 2:42 "The ketchup of its day" — fun fact, ketchup actually has its origins as a similar food, a vinegary fish sauce from southeast Asia whose name got applied by Europeans to any vinegary sauce and eventually specifically to the vinegary tomato sauce we know today.

  4. Incredibly interesting & well put together! I still like your powerpoint visage but what a way to ~YouTube space it up~

  5. I have been making roman style garum (using mackeral) for a few years now, it's amazing, so much umami, its great on salad or a steak!

  6. I heard that the Roman aristocracy loved stuffed dormice or basically, hamsters and sauteed flamingo tongues. The Roman nobility ate some wild things.

  7. 4:17 I think it is "Colatura di alici", not Aldici. I think you have just misspelled the word, but it is not an important thing

  8. Fish sauce is pretty awesome… but i can't eat it alone. that is kind of like drinking Worcestershire sauce: gross alone, but fantastic as an ingredient.

    …don't ask me how i know what drinking Worcestershire sauce is like.

  9. I'm Italian (from the North) and I didn't know about "colatura". ("alici" btw, not "aldici"). at Eataly it costs 6€ for 100ml and 18€ for 250ml.

  10. Check out this playlist of more videos on European history: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLnpoOo7lhNnHiQzd7JBCAAj31by-yRcor

  11. I've made some Epicious (the Roman cookbook) recipes, since a friend of mine is a Latin teacher. We substituted in Asian fish sauce in place of garum, but it was really tasty.

  12. I'd love to try Garum😋, you got a subscriber with "Where the 12th Doctor got his face" 😆😆😆, thanks I really needed the laugh 😅👍

  13. In a very poor part of Manila, Philippines decades ago, I saw the locals had big pots out in the open making fish sauce/paste. I was so amazed because it looked something out of the 19th century or at least deep from the country side. When I was there, there were hundreds of variation made from fish, shrimp, and crab. The crab paste was always my favorite.

  14. I made pasta with colatura di alici yesterday. Such a good/ delicious find! I used the recipe that has fresh parsley, crushed peppers, and lemon zest.

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