The team resurrecting ancient Rome’s favorite condiment

On a sunny day at In May, a dozen people gathered in the Roman ruins of Troia, in present-day Portugal, with a recipe. The list of ingredients? 400 kilos of sardines, 150 kilos of sea salt and 350 liters of sea water. The group included archaeologists, nutritionists, palynologists, ichthyologists and, of course, a qualified chef. They had come together to experimentally recreate garum, the ancient fish sauce of the Roman Empire, as it was originally produced.

The group patiently emptied the small fish with two or three cross-cuts, threw them into old stone tanks, and covered them with brine made by combining salt and seawater with a metal paint palette. Their goal was to bring garum back into the Portuguese diet.

“Rescuing this part of our history can reconnect us with how we ate on this land centuries ago,” says chef Pedro Almeida, one of the members of the Garum Lusitano, or Portuguese Garum, project. Troia, a quiet peninsula on the southwest coast of Portugal, is best known as a family summer destination. But about 2,000 years ago, it was a major economic driver for the Romans.

Chef Pedro Almeida and owner Victor Vicente in Can the Can with pots from their house garum. Courtesy of Can the Can

The Troia site produced literally tons of the stinky and delicious sauce that shaped Roman palaces and filled thousands of amphoras shipped to Rome and other provinces. Similar large-scale sites existed in North Africa and Spain. But none was as crucial as the narrow, sandy 21km-long peninsula, which provided all the raw materials needed for what researchers consider to be the the most important center of fish curing of the Roman Empire currently known. They identified 200 visible reservoirs distributed in 29 salting factories with a production capacity of 1.4 million liters, and they estimate the complex produced twice as much between the 1st and 5th centuries.

Using historic sites and archaeological evidence to bring ancient recipes to life is nothing new. Among other projects, historians and archaeologists have teamed up with brewers and chefs to recreate a yeast-based beer found in a 3,000-year-old jug and a lamb and beetroot stew that dates back to the Babylonian era. But recreating the Roman garum has a special purpose: Archaeologists excavating Troia want to understand why one of history’s staple foods has disappeared from European eating habits.

The Portuguese Garum project began when Inês Vaz Pinto, one of the heads of the archeology department, learned that the team behind Lisbon’s famous restaurant Can The Can were producing garums in their kitchen. She contacted chef Pedro Almeida and owner Victor Vicente with an irresistible invitation: she offered to exchange the five-liter plastic containers in the restaurant’s pantry for the ancient fermentation vats used by the Romans to ferment the wine. garum.

Analysis of the centuries-old sediments revealed that the sauce was almost entirely made of sardines.
Analysis of centuries-old sediments revealed that the sauce was almost entirely made of sardines. Mariana Motta Veiga

“The proportion has changed a bit,” says Almeida, laughing. “We have already had many experiences with garum in the restaurant, and although we have had good results using oysters, mackerel and even sardines, it was a whole new experience working with the Troia team.” Working directly with the archaeologists of Troia meant a big step forward in historical accuracy.

Since 2019, when he took over Can the Can cuisine, Almeida has focused on the sustainability of seafood, featuring forgotten or neglected species on the menu and using whole fish in his preparations, especially for cold cuts, such as tuna pastrami or swordfish bacon. He started making garum due to a specific challenge: finding a way to use the innards of fish in his cooking as well. While diners may not be clamoring for these parts of a fish, the potent taste of garum has caused a revival in some fine dining restaurants.

Garum is usually made only from small fish, although recipes have changed over the centuries to include various aromatic herbs, spices, or even wine. The garum designation, however, generally defines fish sauces obtained from natural fermentation in brine. The microorganisms and enzymes found in fish are essential in the decomposition process that produces the robust flavors of garum. A few drops of the thick liquid can transform a food. Essentially, it’s the decomposition process that gives garum the delicious umami flavor that has been hooked for generations of Romans.

Troia's location on a long peninsula made it perfect for making garum from locally caught fish.
Troia’s location on a long peninsula made it perfect for making garum from locally caught fish. Paulo Sanches Fernandes / Getty Images

“It’s curious because, in Eastern countries, these types of fish sauces remain an essential condiment for many recipes”, explains Almeida. “Whereas in the Western world, despite the established tradition, a lot of people shy away from the idea of ​​’rotten sauce’.”

Since there are no specific notes on how the Romans produced garum – historical books never detailed the ingredients or proportions – the team relied on scientific data: a dose of archeology, a pinch of palynology (the study of plant pollen) and a pinch of cooking knowledge.

When they dug in the Troia tanks, the researchers found a thick layer of fish remains on the bottom, usually a huge amount of disarticulated bones with thousands of vertebrae. The predominant species was sardines, in proportions of up to 90 percent.

A garum amphora from Pompeii.
A garum amphora from Pompeii. Anne Ewbank for Gastro Obscura

Since the original tanks have worn walls, with cracks, moss and lichens, they chose to use a polypropylene bag (with a capacity of 1000 liters) in contact with the stone walls. , thus absorbing their heat. As it is also suggested by some documents that the Romans covered their tanks with carpet, allowing full contact with the air, the team decided to leave the bag partially open.

The end of May was chosen for its ideal temperatures for making garum, as well as for its exposure to the sun and its humidity. This is also the time of year when the Romans produced garum. But it will be months before researchers can do taste tests. “Our forecast is for the end of September,” explains Pedro Almeida. “In the restaurant, with a controlled temperature, I can achieve the result in three months. In an open environment, we will need more time.

The tub covered with a mat, as in ancient Rome.
The tub covered with a mat, as in ancient Rome. Mariana Motta Veiga

Until then, Garum Lusitano’s team will analyze the evolution of the first modern garum produced in Troia. “So far, the fermentation process has gone very well,” says Almeida. “The sauce thickens and the smell is excellent.” Archaeologists have already requested public funding to expand recreation in Troia.

Almeida has created several garum dishes in her restaurant, such as a steak and lamb tartare with an oyster garum. He has not yet decided on a recipe for the Troia fish sauce. But with the garum coming straight from an ancient archaeological site, he hopes the experience will spark the interest and curiosity of diners. Her kitchen is only 30 miles from the site, so no amphora or boat will be needed this time.

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