Despite being incredibly salty, stinky and made essentially out of rotting fish, garum, the ancient Roman sauce, was the ketchup of its day, a ubiquitous condiment found on every table and in every pantry. Prepared by fermenting whole, brined small fish for multiple months, the amber-colored umami bomb was a major part of Roman trade and widely used across a variety of dishes, from meats to salads and even in sweets.
Though it was undeniably popular, garum eventually lost its place in the kitchens of the Mediterranean and other parts of the former Roman Empire. Iterations of the pungent sauce exist today, like Colatura di Alici in Italy, but its original recipe and method of production are no more than ancient relics. A rather smelly experiment at an archeological site in Portugal is trying to change that, though.
Despite garum’s connection to Rome, the Empire’s largest manufacturing facility for the sauce was actually located in what is now Portugal (Lusitania back then). More exactly, it was found on the island of Ácala, as Tróia was known during the Roman period. Tróia is one hour south of Lisbon on the banks of the Sado estuary. The area’s abundant Atlantic fish, salt pans and natural clay for creating amphorae made it the perfect location for garum production. This year, thanks to the work of archeologists working on the site and a pair of Lisbon restauranteurs, garum was made on the site of Tróia’s ruins for the first time in some 1600 years.
Victor Vicente and Pedro Almeida – the owner and chef, respectively, of Lisbon’s Can the Can – are the brains behind this operation. In May 2021, they placed 400 kilos of locally caught and gutted sardines, 129 kilos of salt and 320 liters of spring water in one of Tróia’s ancient Roman stone tanks, where archeologists and researchers allowed the ingredients to ferment for six months.
“We wanted to recreate this for so long, and the enthusiasm of the Can the Can /Selo de Mar team made it possible,” says Patrícia Brum, one of the site’s archeologists. “To be able to do this was like a dream come true. We learned so much, and we were able to bring life to the site, calling on the sense of scent of the visitors. It felt like traveling in time. The final result is better than my best expectations. To me it tastes like the sea.”
We had the pleasure of sampling an earlier garum experiment with chef Filipe Rodrigues, made at his Lisbon restaurant Taberna do Mar. It was served at a delicious picnic in Tróia that was part of our Culinary Backstreets/Atlas Obscura trip. Like the many chefs looking to reincorporate garum into modern fare, Victor and Pedro had performed their own garum trials in much smaller batches at their restaurant. This led them to dream of attempting the recipe in the most authentic way possible, at the Tróia site.
The resounding positivity from chefs and researchers around the project and its results has everyone excited about its possibilities. “It tastes really good and the experiment was great,” Victor says, telling us this batch of garum is much more balanced than the ones they attempted at their restaurant – perhaps because the tanks absorb heat during the day, keeping the ingredients warm even at night, which helps maintain the fermentation process.
Patrícia recalls some funny episodes, including a street cat wandering in and trying to taste the garum. “Coincidentally, in one of the information panels on the site, we had drawn a cat over a tank as we had found cat bones in the Roman buildings. We had to find a solution to cover the tank to make sure the animals couldn’t get there, and we think the Romans must have faced the same problem,” she says.
Over in the UK, food historian, archeologist and chef Sally Grainger, a famous Roman cooking enthusiast and author of The Story of Garum and Cooking Apicius, has already gotten to taste the garum made in Tróia. “I was thrilled to see this happen and excited by the results. Victor sent me samples and I was amazed by the taste. Knowing how he made it, I am quite sure it represents an authentic Roman sauce. Lovely light amber, low salt, delicate flavor,” she wrote us in an email.
Victor and Pedro say the Tróia experiment has left them feeling more confident about their understanding of garum’s production. “We’re now in the process of filtering and bottling it, and we have an idea of the time needed for the production – around six months,” Victor says. Victor is a food researcher and designer, and his restaurant in central Lisbon has been showcasing canned fish and fish dishes for almost a decade now (hence its name). Victor also shares his research on Portuguese conservas (canneries) in the online museum Museu Digital da Indústria Conserveira, and with Pedro plans to open a research center dedicated to fish conservation in the coastal city of Setúbal.
In Lisbon, the pair’s garum be found at the Lisbon Roman Theatre Museum, the specialty food shops Loja das Conservas and Comida Independente and at Can the Can. Most exciting is to taste it at the restaurant, where Victor and Pedro have created delicious dishes that complement the umami flavor of the garum, namely a tuna tartar, a tasting board of cured and smoked fish, and a salad with smoked swordfish, fennel, radish, orange and lettuce that can be sprayed with garum. There’s even an egg custard dessert with garum salted caramel, a nod to the Romans’ soup to nuts use of garum.
This summer, a Roman shipwreck from the 4th or 5th century – the last period of garum production in Tróia – was found off of Sicily in the Mediterranean. It was loaded with Portuguese amphorae used for the fishy sauce. Now that we’ve recreated this ancient condiment at its production site centuries later, perhaps the gods have gifted us with an opportunity to learn more about the original. Until then, we’re happy to stick with Victor and Pedro’s modern-day recreation.
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