Garum and other fish sauce processing site, from the Roman period site of Ribera, in Catalonia, Spain. Museu d’Història de la Ciutat
CC Flickr User laura padgett
Garum was a very popular, but expensive and pungent Roman fish sauce used as a condiment and as a medicine. The Romans fermented a fatty fish in odor-reducing-salt brine and added other flavorings to make the garum. It sat in the sun from one to three months. Occasionally, the manufacturer stirred it. The clear liquid on top was the garum, and the residue, allec. It sounds smelly to us and did, as well, to the Romans. Naturalist Pliny the Elder (the one killed in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius) calls it "that secretion of putrefying matter," but he also calls it "a kind of exquisite liquor." ["In Defense of Garum," by Robert I. Curtis; The Classical Journal
, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Feb. - Mar., 1983), pp. 232-240.]
Our Worcestershire sauce has anchovies in it, so the Roman fish sauce is not as odd as it sounds. Some gourmet cooks recommend anchovy paste to replace salt. Garum may smell like Vietnamese fish sauce, nuoc-mam.
There were three other fish sauces related to garum, liquamen, allec and muria. According to Diocletian's price edict of A.D. 301, the top-notch fish sauce was liquamen primum and cost 16 denarii for one sextarius of sauce; the second best was liquamen secundum, which was four denarii cheaper. There was also cheap fish sauce that was popular with the lower classes. The words appear on papyri in shopping and expense lists.
Salt fish dealers were called salsarii. They are thought to have dealt in garum, too.
Go to Other Ancient / Classical History Glossary pages beginning with the letter
Also Known As: fish sauce, liquamen