Blog Post #50: The Story of Garum and Other Adventures in Roman Food with Sally Grainger

In February we’re cooking up a food-and-drink-themed blog series for you, featuring scholars who study eating and drinking culture in the ancient world from a variety of avenues, from texts to pottery to experimental archaeology. Below, we present a longer interview with food historian Sally Grainger, conducted by Peopling the Past’s blog editor, Megan Daniels.

Megan Daniels: Thank you for joining me today. So my first question for you is, what’s your personal story of how you came to be interested in food in the ancient world?

Sally Grainger: Yes, I started out as a chef, and after about 15 years, I think I was rather bored because it’s not very intellectual. I’m good with my hands, but after a time it was just not satisfying. I had a boyfriend who was into ancient history – he was doing an A-level in ancient history, and so I did, too.  I really got fired up by the topic.  I seem to remember I Claudius and Suetonius being part of that enthusiasm   Somebody bought me as a present a copy of the Edwards translation of Apicius. Now this is one published in America in English, and for its time, it was good, but it was very, very confused about ancient food. But I was intrigued, and started looking into it.

I was in the middle of my degree by that time. I went to the University of London for a classical studies/ancient history degree – that’s how obsessed I became with Roman history generally. And I discovered all these fabulous recipes supposedly written by Apicius, this famous Roman gourmet.  I started playing around with the recipes and began to consider the possibility of a Roman banquet at the dept.  Most of my fellow students at this time used to have a toga party, wrapped themselves in a sheet, and drank a lot. But I wanted some thing a little more authentic.   At the time I simply ‘winged it’ I could not really judge how authentic the Roman food that I prepared was at this stage. I was a chef, so I knew what I was doing, but I also didn’t because on the surface Roman food seems quite alien. I just tried to make it taste good.  All my fellow students didn’t want to go because my lecturers and professors wanted to go but I was happy with that.

Mosaic fragment of a fishing scene, 3rd – 4th century CE, found in Utica (Tunisia), British Museum, CC-BY-SA 2.0, by Carole Raddato

At that meal, that first big Roman banquet I prepared, I think it was about 25 people there. Andrew Dalby came. He was invited by a friend.  Andrew Dalby, of course, is one of those huge names in food history, particularly ancient Greek food history. After the banquet, he said to me, “You’ve got the secret of Roman food.” I didn’t know what I had – I just was winging it!  But he though I had.  He asked if I would like to do a book. I was halfway through my degree and about 30 i guess.   It was clearly meant to happen. Obviously, it was one of those moments where you meet the person that’s going to take you forward into your next career.

That’s how it all started, I couldn’t stop once I had been bitten by the bug!  I got more and more involved with the intricacies of the recipes and how they functioned, how the spices worked with the fish sauce. There is this awful attitude that people have for Roman food: there’s an assumption that it is going to be somehow odd and not to our taste and full of rotten things and too many spices. And of course, it’s nonsense because Roman food is in fact fabulous.  Fish sauce is not horrible, rotten and stinky. All these images are completely false so I set out to prove that Roman food is much nicer than people thought. That was kind of where I was at the beginning of it all.

Sally at the British Museum doing a public lecture
Sally pouring black garum on oysters at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford

MD: It’s so cool to see the stars align. Has your background influenced how you study ancient food?

SG: Oh, very much, because I’m really only interested in the practicalities and the empirical perspective.  I am a trained historian and I’m a trained archaeologist because I have a M.A. in Archaeology too, but I don’t want to claim to be either of those things.  I call myself a food historian for convenience. I specialize in how ancient food looked, the taste, the feel, the smell. It’s all about food as food. I see so many discussions about ancient food, where a given commodity or ingredient is seen as a signifier of something else altogether. Generally, its the usual attribution of social hierarchies and differentiation of access to goods because of course what you eat is who you are and we are limited in what we can learn about people of the past. The food itself doesn’t seem to matter, its physicality, and is often misinterpreted as a result.

A classic misconception concerns fish sauce because it has been assumed to be rotten and disgusting and even an invention specifically designed to reinforce class boundaries because of its acquired taste.   That’s suggested by a number of scholars. And it’s so not that – it is so ordinary and ubiquitous, commonplace, and a beautiful ingredient consumed so widely that this idea becomes nonsense.

Wall painting from Herculaneum, CC-BY-SA 4.0 by ArchaiOptix

But that mindset that says that food must signify something other is hard to challenge. There is no doubt that some foods and some culinary practices do signify elite consumption practices and reflect a real need by the elite to differentiate themselves from everybody else.  Now one can say that of some of the bizarre types of offal that were consumed such as lark’s tongue, sweetbreads, brains, testicles and even the dormice – often people remember the dormice.

However even with this, one can see that the dormouse is just like a guinea pig, hamster or a squirrel and when prolific undoubtedly a poverty food: kind of game that was available to all.  In parts of Croatia, edible dormice were always a poverty food. In Roman times they were farmed and it seems it was profitable to farm them for the table.  Offal had a certain cachet because each animal only one or two items to offer the table, but again each simple modest sacrifice by a farmer resulted in offal which the participants shared out so all these items were consumed widely just not in quantity. To serve a whole dish of kidneys was the height of luxury as it obviously reflected large numbers of slaughtered animals. Sadly, we often reject offal today as its seen as low value and too strong in taste but we should be more adventurous I feel. 

MD: I never even heard of lark’s tongue!

SG: Yeah, well, exactly. It’s there in one text. Suetonius’ Life of Vitellius.13), where it is suggested that the emperor ate a special frittata – called a patina – made with offal from rare birds. The more difficult to obtain these things were, the more exclusive and expensive. Whether anyone else ate them is unlikely but it does reflect an interesting attitude to rare offal in Roman culture.    

Garum factory in Baelo Claudia, Cádiz, Spain; CC-BY-SA 4.0, by Benjamín Núñez González

MD: What do you think we misunderstand most about food in the ancient Mediterranean? And I imagine it has something to do with fish sauce!

SG: I didn’t concentrate on fish sauce really inclusively until my M.A. in archaeology. Before that, I was looking at the recipes in their entirety.  I was reading comments from fellow food historians, who saw the recipes without stipulated quantities, particularly for the spices, and misinterpreting them.  They saw recipes with seven and eight different spices, three or four different herbs, five or six different liquids and assumed all those ingredients amounted to excess. They hadn’t taken into account the kind of food we find in Asia and the Middle East where dishes that use 40 spices are exceptional, fabulous dishes where a delicate balance of spices leads to magical tastes.   

Often it is assumed that somebody other than the cook was making decisions about what to put in it and how much to use. Because the more spice you used, the more you reflect your wealth it was assumed. And so, the host somehow dictates how much is being used in order to show off to his guest, which is just wrong. It doesn’t work because the cook is in charge of the food. The host, the master of the household, is dependent on the cook to produce good food, and the cook knows how to blend spices and often it a delicate balance. It turns out that when very occasionally there are recipes with precise quantities, we see that they are not used to excess at all.

And not only that, there’s about four spices, the really expensive ones commonly in use: pepper, silphium, saffron, ginger  Most of the other spices in Apicius are things like cumin and coriander, dill and fennel, mustard seed, and aniseed. These are commonplace. They’re cheap. They’re grown in Italy. They’re not expensive. And in fact, they were used in Roman Britain and undoubtedly were grown in Britain too: there’s quite a lot of evidence for their use in fairly modest Romano-British dwellings – not associated with villas, but actually with ordinary farming communities for things like fennel, mustard seed, dill, and coriander. Many recipes in the Apicius collection reflect an everyday cuisine rather than exclusively an elite cuisine.

Screenshot from Sally’s YouTube channel

Furthermore, if these spices are used subtly, the food suddenly is transformed, and the debate around the nature and quality of Roman food is also transformed.  I’ve demonstrated that Roman food can be very good to eat many times with the Roman banquets that I’ve prepared. I tried to make the food as authentic as possible while also trying to please peoples palates. Its not always possible, some dishes do seem to evade success. I also some times have to be careful not to make the dishes tastes too good to a modern palate as the assumption is that I was too much influenced by modern tastes and therefore It can’t be authentic.   The thinking here is that tastes change too much over time but I am more sceptical of that thinking.    

MD: So the assumption is all Roman food was over-spiced or very bland?

SG: Over-spiced and/or very bland. And of course, that’s wrong, too, because fish sauce does something miraculous to foods that were supposedly poor quality cheap and simple i.e.bland – it makes it taste exceptionally good. Umami is that magic ingredient – an enzyme called glutamate, which enhances flavour. So if you look at the other end of the social scale at the peasant farmer, the freedman family with their boiled meal that probably has small amounts of bacon or pork in it, and also local vegetables and pulses and so on, maybe a bit of wine, maybe a bit of honey, even. Adding salt to it does little. It’s very worthy as we say. But if you add fish sauce to it, it is transformed and it becomes really quite magical. And then you can’t go back I suspect. You can’t go back to adding salt because you’ve tasted what fish sauce can do.

Mosaic from the villa of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, Pompeii, CC-BY-SA 3.0, by Claus Ableiter

MD: So this brings me to my next question, turning to your recent book on garum (fish sauce). Can you actually just describe what fish sauce is and why it was so popular in the ancient world?

SG: Ok, so originally garos was a Greek sauce, made with very small, very cheap, rapidly decaying little fish – mainly sardine and anchovy, but also many kinds of what they call clupids and sparids: baby bream, mullet pagellus.  And they were caught in small nets off the beach, and then over time, they were caught in much larger quantities to make a bulk fish sauce. And as soon as you take it out of the water, it starts to decay. You have to add salt immediately to halt the decay, and as they’re too small to eviscerate the only thing that can happen is that they dissolve n that salt, all the water in the fish is drawn out and they start to float in this brine that’s been created, which is the natural water of the fish.

And then all the little packets of viscera inside each little fish start to dissolve the fish from the inside out – and disintegrate. The tiny little bones are almost insignificant. The cranial bones are the largest, and they tend to sink to the bottom, and you get basically a separation of the components: the fish paste, which is the meat of the fish. The liquor, or brine, which is absorbing liquefied protein from the paste and you have the bones. The mixture is left to ferment or to be precise it is enzyme hydrolyzation that occurs. Depending on the levels of salt bacteria plays a relatively small part of the process.

And over time, the liquor becomes more concentrated in protein, and then it is removed along with the fish paste and the bones are discarded. What you have is a creamy liquor light amber – mid brown in colour and when this is filtered to make it clear, the result is a separate fish paste.  The liquor is used as a seasoning – that was the basic fish sauce in Greece. It arrives in Rome and becomes popular.  It begins to be made with larger fish because there’s more meat on the bone. And so it’s richer, it’s darker, it’s more pungent. Mackerel tends to be the most popular. And over time, it becomes more exclusive: the fish paste from that mackerel fish sauce is much richer and more desirable and is used as a dip but is also a commonplace food item.

The Roman garum factory of Olisipo, Lisbon, CC-BY-SA 2.0, byCarole Raddato
Garum Factory, El Majuelo Spain, CC-BY-SA-3.0, by José Luis Filpo Cabana

So we see this that happening with elite sources, but it’s also apparent from references in sources like Plautus, where people of modest freedmen status are asking for allec (that is the fish paste) when they have either vegetables or meat to dip into it.  It’s a smooth creamy fish paste – it looks like anchovy paste. And then at some point, at the end of the 1st century BCE, a new kind of fish sauce is invented. Prior to this, we were still dealing with garos, the Greek fish sauce, and this term was almost certainly transliterated into garum in the mid-1st century BCE.

I think it’s Apicius, but I’m not sure, who invents a new sauce and it appears from recipes to just be from the blood and viscera of larger fish like mackerel, but also mullet and subsequently tuna. And it’s the blood and viscera of these fish that are left to ferment with salt in the same way fish sauce is made. There’s no muscle tissue that needs dissolving as the blood is already liquid and remains so in the presence of salt – i.e. it doesn’t coagulate.  This garum is dark, black in colour. It’s bloody and very pungent. It has a most unusual smell. It actually smells of iron.

Second century Roman mosaic from a triclinium in a house from Sousse, Musée archéologique de Sousse_CC-BY-SA 3.0, by Ad Meskens

This is going to sound a little gross but it helps to understand what this kind of sauce was like.  I had a friend who was a surgical nurse and she said that the smell of garum was like the smell of digested blood in an operating theatre. So, it is a very strange mixture, very pungent, and unlike the earlier garum it’s used as a table sauce. It’s poured onto food, poured onto oysters – very good when it’s poured onto oysters. I tried to make it – the only way to understand it was to try and make it. I went fishing for mackerel in the Solent, which is the little body of water between the English coast and the Isle of Wight, and I caught about 50 mackerel with the help of some fishermen. We eviscerated and bled them, and I made this garum sociorum as it was called.  I was able to experience that smell and to see the colour and texture of it. . This new fish sauce was not used for cooking. It’s too rich, too pungent, too dark to put into the cooking process.

There is a little confusion about the nature of these two sauces.  When the basic small- fish sauce was made in bulk with a variety of different sizes of fish the manufacturer added extra viscera to aid the digestive process because the viscera contains the  enzymes and the enzymes aid the digestion process. Thus there was confusion among early commentators on fish sauce as they conflated the two distinct types of sauce into one sauce. Everybody thought garum was made from blood, viscera and fish. And I separated them out into the two, and you can see that separation quite clearly in many of the texts, both didactic texts and the satires. And you can also see it in the recipe texts, particularly in Apicius.

MD: But they’re both called garum?

SG: No, because at the point where this new sauce was invented, you had to have a new term for the new sauce. But for some reason – and this entirely guesswork – but my educated guess, was that the gourmet appropriated garum for the new type of black sauce and a new term had to be coined for the old sauce, and that term was liquamen. And liquamen therefore is the word you find in the Apicius recipe text for the basic fish sauce.

MD: So the basic, older fish sauce is liquamen. The new one is garum.

SG: Yes, but even more confusingly at the end of the Roman Empire the fancy new black and bloody sauce was no longer used.  Its popularity for good reason I think, was quite short lived.   It dies out as a commodity, and it’s hardly traded at all. So many writers start to revert to using garum to mean the original sauce, while others maintain the distinction. And thus we have immense confusion. Many scholars accept my theory – archaeologists and historians have accepted the idea of liquamen being the principle sauce of trade and culinary use but many do not.  You start off with garos and then garum, and then it becomes garum and liquamen, and then at the end of the Empire, fish sauce merges back together and all you have is a garum  which is equivalent to the original Greek sauce.  There are veterinary texts written in Latin in the late Empire, many of which are translations of original Greek sources, and they do continue to use the distinction garum  and liquamen. It is in these texts  where I discovered that this must have been the answer to the problem of how to distinguish one sauce from the other. But it’s controversial as a theory. I do have by supporters, but I also have my detractors.

MD: Yes I just assumed garum was garum! My memories of learning about fish sauce involve me making faces as I read about, say, fish sauce production areas in southern Spain or Pompeii. You just get this idea that these places must have stunk. But perhaps this is another big misunderstanding?

Remains of garum, Cetaria of Santa Pola, 4th century CE, CC-BY-SA 3.0, by JoanBanjos

SG: It didn’t smell when I made it. I made about 150 litres in a greenhouse at the bottom of my garden. I used sardine and mackerel, and when the greenhouse door was shut, you couldn’t tell. There was no smell in the garden at all. All my neighbours had no idea. But one particular batch of fish went wrong, and that was because I got the concentration of salt in the brine wrong, and it became infected with too many of the wrong kind of bacteria. And it started to smell quite bad, and I had a lot of flies and that was quite unpleasant, but It still didn’t disturb my neighbours. I think people in the ancient world were able to judge to the salt levels quite carefully to keep it safe. A lot of flies were a problem, they used to lay their eggs all over the tank, but the salt was so high at that point that they never hatched. So that was very unpleasant.

I have contact with a chef from Lisbon, from the restaurant Can the Can, who have been making fish sauce now in the processing tanks that survive in a place called Troia on the Sado River. He’s using a recipe that I helped him develop. He made it inside a food grade bag that was sitting inside the original Roman tanks.  The flies were so bad they couldn’t get near the bag – so many flies, and I suspect that those fish sauce factories along the Spanish coast from Malaga to Cadiz, whee fish sauce was made in huge quantities were very unpleasant places to be. 

MD: Ok because there are so many of them?

SG: There are so many factories, every few miles along the coast and the flies would be just powerfully attracted to it. They must have found a way to keep the flies away, and I think they must have used more salt, I don’t know. It’s very difficult to work it out. I think because my first batch of fish sauce went so well and didn’t really attract flies, didn’t smell wrong, it was pungent, interesting you know but not bad.  In this case the fly eggs were laid but they never hatched. And so I think they may have found a way to stop them hatching – but it’s a complete mystery to me, it was just very gross.

MD: Yes – I lived in Australia for a couple of years and when it gets really hot and dry there, the flies are just all over you. So just having that concentration of flies must have been infuriating.

SG: They were enormous blue bottles, massive and they kind of just fly and bang into you.

MD: Perhaps they used nets or something similar?

SG: Well, yeah, but you see the eggs are just everywhere in these great clusters.

Map of Roman Hispania, 1st century BCE, CC-BY-SA 4.0, by BlaGalaxi

MD: In your book you talk about fish sauce elsewhere and so where was fish sauce used beyond the ancient Mediterranean?

SG: Well, it’s also a fundamental part of South East Asian cuisine, and every country in South East Asia has a different kind of fish sauce. It’s got different textures and qualities and different fish, but it all has the same magical quality. They’re looking for umami. They’re looking for that flavour enhancement. And they’re also looking for protein.  Often in parts of Vietnam and Thailand, where consumption of meat is quite low, it is their only source of protein, and it just goes onto the basic noodle dish. And it’s potentially quite high in nutrition. That’s the magical thing about it.

There’s a fish sauce made in Vietnam that is has got 50 grams of protein per litre . Pure, pure protein. It’s like if you make a stock and you boil it down into a thick syrup, and then put it into ice cube trays. It’s instant stock – it’s like a sort of bone broth. It’s a highly nutritious kind of thing, and that’s what fish sauce is like. That’s how concentrated it is in nutrition. So, highly desirable.

Phrik_nam_pla – Thai fish sauce with chillies, CC-BY-SA 4.0

MD: And this is modern day Southeast Asia.

SG: Yeah. And there is a theory that there is a link between ancient and south east Asian sauces.  The Malaysian words for salt is garum. Is it a complete coincidence? We don’t know. It’s quite possible that the ancient fish sauce went that far east, but we don’t know.  I think if you have an island or a coastal community with an abundance of small fish then you are going to make fish sauce in some form or another. It might not be a clear liquid as liquamen was. It may be a paste. Maybe semi-fermented. But you’re going to utilize that food resource somehow. And you have the right kind of coastline to be able to get down individually as a small fisherman with a small net and catch enough fish to make it.

MD: It’s so interesting! We find Roman lamps and glass in Southeast Asia, so you never know with the word garum!

SG: Absolutely. That’s good.

Anchovies for the production of fish sauce, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam, CC-BY-SA 4.0, by Frank Fox

MD: So why is it so vital to study fish sauce?

SG: Well, oil, wine, and fish sauce are the three liquid commodities that are traded in amphoras, and wherever the Romans go amphoras go, and wherever these go, fish sauce goes – fish sauce and wine actually, before oil. Thus, it’s fundamental to understanding Roman trade and the economy, to understand how fish sauce was traded, and to understand how much fish sauce each amphora represents as well.

In fact, that was one of the reasons why I wanted to specialise in fish sauce.   I started out with my M.A. in archaeology looking at pottery and cooking practices and subsequently amphorae and the different shapes.  I wanted to come up with theory as to how the amphora functioned and how the sauces were traded.  Was it impossible to work out how much product is represented by a single amphora.   Its not just volume but also consistency.   Often it is not even possible to know how many amphorae you have on a site as they survive as shards and rarely the data from such finds can be converted accurately into numbers of whole vessels.   

Furthermore, after the product has come out of the amphora, it’s very often impossible to see how it was sold on. Because it’s quite possible it was sold on in different vessels. So getting an idea about the volume of the trade is very, very hard, and one of the things I wanted to do with my experiments is to work out the capacity – the capacity of the tanks where fish sauce was made, and then how the fish sauce was traded because I think it was traded in a concentrated form.

Amphora for Garum, stamped Sextus Domitius, CC-SA-BY 4.0, by Ian Alexander

It is likely that semi-processed fish, fish paste, was shipped across the Mediterranean and then brined at the other end. In that way, you were able to generate more fish sauce completely away from the processing sites. And I’m fairly certain I was able to demonstrate that this is what happened because we know that the fish bones associated with the allec, which is the name given to the residue of fish sauce, are found all over the Empire in large deposits discarded next to the ports and markets, but also inside the amphoras that are then subsequently discarded.

It was very difficult to work out why this product, which is presumably a bony fish paste, was ever trade at all, as it was considered as a food for slaves and the poor precisely because the bones within it.  It became clear to me that this allec was a semi processed fish sauce not quite ready for sale.  These sauces were started off in a cetaria (fish processing vat) in Spain or North Africa, but as soon as it begins to liquefy, it was very likely put it into an amphora and traded, sent across the Mediterranean so that during that sea journey, it could continue to ferment inside the amphora. You can then harvest your fish sauce from the vessel at the other end at a port or market.

MD: And then they put additives in it at the other end?

SG: Well, yes they added brine and some times wine. You could possibly even re-brine the mixture twice because if you’re using large quantities of larger fish the residue contains plenty of fish flesh. Most of the residues we find in the processing tanks in Spain and North Africa, as well as further afield, are using fish between about 3 and 20 cm.  I use that range of fish when I made my fish sauce and I found that those between 3 and, say, 12 cm dissolved in the first instance, quite readily, but from 12 to 20 cm, they were still in pieces. They were still recognizably fish. The skin was still present and the flesh was softened, but it hadn’t dissolved. Thus, you can take your first batch of creamy sauce from those smaller fish and ship that on as a liquid sauce, but then you re-brine what’s left. I think initially they may have done that in the cetaria, in the processing tanks, which is the name of these sunken watertight tanks. But then I think they realized that they could transport it semi-processed and brine it further on.

Mosaic from Statio 25, Piazzale delle Corporazioni, Ostia, Public Domain

MD: So a deeper, nuanced understanding of economic flows.

SG: Exactly, yes. And the volume of fish sauce that you can generate is, I think, fourfold from what was understood before, from doing those experiments. There’s a possibility, too, of an elite expensive mackerel fish sauce generating maybe three lots of sauce because the fish were so much bigger and the final one, the third one, could be a weak and cheap one, but still made from something that started out being expensive.

MD: So you have different grades then just like you have different grades of products like wine.

SG: Exactly and it’s very hard to judge how they understood the different qualities. It’s about touch and colour I think, because if it’s quite rich in protein it can darken and it’s also  sticky to touch, like a boiled stock. But it could also be quite high in salt and therefore quite sticky, but not with protein. It would still have umami. So judging a quality source would have been quite skilled, I think.

MD: Yes, absolutely. And so for my final question: you obviously experimented with making fish sauce, which is part of what makes your research so special. So have you found the perfect recipe? And is there any recipe you’d recommend to readers for making fish sauce?

SG: Get yourself a Kilner Jar, a small Kilner jar, and some fresh sardines, some fresh anchovy. Cut them in half. Weigh them, and you want about 15 percent salt.  So work out how much you need. Add the salt to the fish, mix it up. Shake the jar a little. Leave it on a shelf for about a month. Keep shaking it, open it up and stir it occasionally. And then after about a month, you’ll see that you’ll start to get some liquor and it’ll float on the surface. Keep stirring that liquor in. Leave it for another month, so two months in total. And after two months, I guarantee that the liquor on the surface will have sunk to the bottom and the fish paste will have risen to the top. That’s how it works. Because the density of the liquor determines where that fish paste sits in the jar. And at that point, when the liquor has sunk to the bottom of the jar, you can then filter it. The fact that it has sunk demonstrates that it has absorbed sufficient protein.  So then put a sieve over a bowl and put some fine muslin over the sieve and then pour it in. Leave it to filter through, and there’s your garum.

MD: So you keep the liquid and toss the filtered stuff.

SG: No, because you look at that filtered stuff and you just kind of judge how much fish flesh is left, and there may be quite a lot in which case you put a bit more brine into it just to cover it and leave it again for two months. But the brine has to be of equal consistency, so 15 percent salt brine.

Garum amphorae from Pompeii, CC-BY-SA 3.0, by Claus Ableiter

MD: Ok, that’s excellent. So it’s not it’s not super hard.

SG: It’s not – especially if you do it in a sealed Kilner jar with one of these rubber seals on them. It’s fine. There’s no smell. You leave it at room temperature: you don’t want it to cook, you don’t want it on a radiator, you don’t want it to overheat, but you don’t want it cold either. So you put it in a well-heated room, out of sight if you don’t want to disturb people. I mean, you might.

MD: Well, people are into pickling and all that stuff, too, so you never know! That’s wonderful – I’ve never had such an intimate discussion about fish sauce to this level. I basically knew areas where fish sauce was made, assumed it would have smelled, but that people in the ancient Mediterranean seemed to love it. And that was about as much as I knew about garum. I didn’t realize there were different types!

SG: One of the things to do as part of an ongoing instructions with that recipe is that once you have your garum – let’s call it liquamen – you take one part liquamen, one part a sweeter wine, one part vinegar, and three parts oil. Put them together in another jar and shake them up, put a bit of pepper in it, a few herbs and there’s your oinogarum, which is the original Greek word for a compound sauce using fish sauce with wine and oil. Very nice, and it’s great as a dip with vegetables or meat.

MD: So you serve this in meals?

SG: Yes. I used to have Roman meals all the time because I needed guinea pigs to taste it. I don’t do it quite so much now. I do have a Roman banquet to do at the end of this year for a society of people who like to eat interesting and unusual food. So that will be I think in October. We’re going to do it for about 150 people.

MD: Wow, it’s amazing. You cook everything.

SG: Well, I wont manage it all, I will need a team and while I will take the lead I shall  let the team of chefs do most of the labour.

MD: That is wonderful! Well, thank you so much for enlightening us all about the many misunderstood aspects of Roman food, particularly garum!

Want to learn more about fish sauce? Check out Sally Grainger’s recently published book, The Story of Garum Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World!

Sally Grainger

Sally Grainger began her career as a real hands-on pastry chef. With that background she has now become one of the better-known hands-on food historians. After a decade working as a chef she took up Classical Studies as an undergraduate at Royal Holloway College, and, while doing so, held her first reconstructed Roman banquet. In 1996 she and Andrew Dalby wrote The Classical Cookbook, an enduring success, for British Museum Press. The recipes, as authentic as could possibly be achieved, were Sally’s. Sally has worked with the British Museum (a Roman meal there coincided with the Pompeii exhibition), the Museum of London, Fishbourne Roman Palace, the Roman Baths at Bath, and Colchester Castle, as well as the Getty Villa near Malibu, where, as food consultant, she organized three large scale meals, Greek, Roman and Byzantine, in a uniquely authentic setting. She has often been seen on Time Team, also on Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain, Rome’s Lost Empire with Dan Snow, a forthcoming Pompeii series with Michael Buerk, and she has fed the Hairy Bikers. And meanwhile she and her partner Chris Grocock, a medieval Latinist, have produced what is now the standard bilingual edition of Apicius, the Roman cookbook, and a practical companion, Cooking Apicius. These were both published by Prospect Books in 2006. An enduring aim for Sally, through much of this period, has been to understand – and, while understanding, to recreate – garum, the Roman fish sauce, a passion reflected in her most recent book, The Story of Garum: Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World, published by Routledge in 2021.

Further Resources:

Dalby, A. and S. Grainger. 1996. The Classical Cookbook. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.

Grainger, S. 2021. The Story of Garum Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World. London and New York: Routledge.

Grainger, S. 2018. “Garum and Liquamen, What’s in a Name?” Journal of Maritime Archaeology 13: 247-261.

Grocock, C. and S. Grainger. 2006. Apicius: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text. Totnes: Prospect Books.

Sally’s YouTube channel  A taste of the ancient world – YouTube

Sally’s web site Sapores antiqui – A Taste of the Ancient World – Roman Cookery with Sally Grainger

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