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Would You Eat This Stuff?

October 24, 2014

Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Rome. Had I been that kid in the movie Airport I’d have answered yes when Peter Graves asked, “Do you like gladiator movies?” Sure, the Romans had their problems, mostly a societal thirst for blood and a system of governance that makes our politics look like kindergarten squabbles, but Rome still managed to effectively rule a land area that today is poorly governed by no fewer than forty governments. And they did so with one law and one currency. But I want to discuss something more important than Rome’s lasting cultural legacy. I want to discuss fish sauce called garum.


At this point, you might be thinking about shuffling off to another blog, but hang in here. We don’t have a recipe but garum seems to have been some sort of sauce made from the rotten entrails of fish and eels. Wait, don’t go yet. I promise this will get interesting. 


What if I told you that ancient documents from 200 B.C.E. have been discovered placing a value on a shipload of this goop at the equivalent of eighty-five million dollars? You’d probably say that garum must have been one helluva fish sauce to be valued up there with gold and other precious commodities.


We know that garum was the caviar of the ancient world. Just about every recipe to have survived from that time includes it as an ingredient, even desserts, and when the Emperor Augustus’ granddaughter Julia was exiled to a remote island she claimed that there was something she couldn’t live without. No, not her copy of Fifty Shades of Grey; it was garum.


So what was the big deal? Why are most of the wrecked Roman cargo ships on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea filled with amphora that once contained garum? We know the product was produced on the outskirts of towns and cities, but was this because of the fetid smell or was there another reason, as experts have recently suggested? Was the State controlling production? Were emperors hoarding the formula of a f*#king fish sauce?


The Discovery Channel recently aired a program intent on shedding light on this mystery. The recipe for garum, like KFC’s seven secret herbs and spices, has not survived, but scientists decided to recreate the stuff. They guessed at the types of fish and eels used, macerated them in a bucket until they had a slimy concoction of fish and entrails, and then left the bucket in the sun for a long period of time. Romans let the concoction ferment for up to three months. Like you, I’m getting sick just thinking about it.


But scientists are an intrepid folk and on the Discovery program a brave fellow came forward to sample the eye-watering, bile-inducing substance. He scooped some of the sludge with a piece of bread, popped it into his mouth and chewed. Once his urge to vomit passed, he noticed something interesting: the garum had practically no taste, but it didn’t take long for him to conclude that this was THE BEST BREAD HE’D EVER EATEN. He started sampling garum with other foods; fruits, cheeses, meats, sweets. Each time he concluded that the garum had little to no taste, while enhancing whatever it was added to.


This phenomenon was confirmed by other scientists who’d gathered to watch their associate blow chow. Before long, all of the scientists were tucking in and feasting. Soon another experience befell these men of science: they were all stoned out of their minds and infected with a ravenous case of the munchies. If this experiment were accurate, garum was also an hallucinogenic. Maybe young Romans put flower power bumper stickers on their chariots and rode out to the countryside to cast off their togas and cavort in a pagan celebration called Woodstockius. Perhaps Caligula had just powered down a batch when he decided to have his horse declared a consul of Rome. As for Nero; was he craving Fourth Meal so much that he set fire to Rome out of frustration when the nearest Taco Bell sold out of garum tacos?


What I wouldn’t give for just a tiny taste. What effect might it have on me? I wonder: Hail Emperor Chubbius….




A most interesting post and I a sure some will be getting ideas about how to make a fishy substance which will blow their minds.......... :)
By: John on October 24, 2014
They washed their togas in urine, too. So, I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. On the other hand...orgies...yeah. I'll walk around in a pee-soaked robe and pour fish guts down my throat if I could get my hands (or some other part of me) on some orgies.
By: Al Penwasser on October 24, 2014
Oh, those weird Romans- now if garum had the opposite effect, of making everything taste terrible, then there'd be a surefire weight loss market for it today.
By: Shelly on October 24, 2014
ummm...don't think I'll be trying this stuff....ewww just the thought of rotten suntanned fish is enough for me! Cheers and bon appetit!
By: Kathe W. on October 24, 2014
While i'd heard of the stuff, i had no clue it was hallucinogenic! Wow, no wonder they loved it!
By: mimi on October 24, 2014
Hah, hah ... is that stuff legal in Colorado?
By: tom sightings on October 24, 2014
nope, don't care how high i'd get. no way.
By: TexWisGirl on October 24, 2014
I'd never heard of it but now I MUST HAVE SOME!!
By: fishducky on October 24, 2014
This is what would be called in our family a "shut up and try it" food. And no one better tell me what it is until AFTER having eaten it... Cat
By: Cat on October 24, 2014
Interesting. I would have loved to have known more about the hallucinogenic aspect and what caused it.
By: Snowbrush on October 24, 2014
Something about eel and being left out in the sun for three months must be an aphrodisiac. Who'd have thought? The Romans, clearly.
By: Robyn Engel on October 24, 2014
I'll pass. The High sounds appealing but anything that will make me eat MORE is evil.
By: Akansas Patti on October 24, 2014
I am sure your are aware of the Asian fermented fish sauce sold in bottles in the U.S It is very salty and add a savory flavor to many dishes. This is most intriguing. I know someone who works at Discovery and wonder if they could point me to this show.
By: Tabor on October 24, 2014
Well, purely in the name of science, in order to find out if it's truly hallucinogenic...I imagine i could hold my nose long enough to choke some down.
By: Val on October 24, 2014
I remember you wrote about this fish sauce before! It sounds intriguing. Didn't anyone die from food poisoning?
By: Pixel Peeper on October 24, 2014
Sounds almost a disgusting as sucking smoke into your lungs and holding it for a few seconds. Is Garum legal in Colorado?
By: Cranky on October 24, 2014
Always something different at CC's good stuff.
By: Cranky on October 24, 2014
I wonder how many Roman's were obese because of their gorging on this stuff? OMG, the thought truly is gross. I think I would prefer the taste of Epicac over this!
By: Bouncin Barb on October 24, 2014
Was this perhaps the reason Nero fiddled while Rome burned? And did he have a big bag of chips next to him? Great post! :-D
By: Lexa Cain on October 24, 2014
Most cultures had some pretty good moonshine stuff. take a look at what the aboriginals used here. they had all kinds of things that would give them a buzz.
By: red on October 24, 2014
This is fascinating! I've never heard of Garum. Not sure I could eat it, though. The smell alone must be horrid. You could probably get high off the fumes!
By: marcia @ Menopausal Mother on October 24, 2014
I just happened to have a batch ready and... oh wow, look at those flying fiddleheads.
By: Daniel LaFrance on October 24, 2014
This might explain how live baby mice came to be considered a delicacy by the Roman ruling elite.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on October 25, 2014
Fascinating! Not sure I could get past the gag reflex so I could actually try it, though.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on October 25, 2014
Ah yes I knew I loved fishing for some reason, now I know what to do with the fish guts :)
By: Jimmy on October 26, 2014

By: on October 28, 2014
A new business: "Emperor Chubbius Golden Garum"
By: Mitchell is Moving on October 28, 2014
So the Romans housed a high proportion of junkies within their midst - some things never change!
By: Bryan Jones on October 28, 2014

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