The Garum Experiment

How a 2,000-year-old recipe for fish sauce can turn your capelin haul into something exquisite.

The rain, drizzle, and fog of early May—surely a sign that winter is finally over—turns my thoughts to the coming harvests.

Long before the berries are ready to pick, we look to the sea to join in a centuries-old tradition: harvesting capelin from the beaches and coves! Late June is capelin season, and many people head down to the shores to collect the tiny fish that roll up onto the rocks. But now that you’ve got a few bags of capelin, what to do with it all?

A brief history of … Garum!

For over a thousand years, garum (fermented fish sauce) was the most popular condiment in the world. High quality garum could sell for the equivalent of $500 a bottle. It filled the role of both ketchup and soy sauce, and the ancient Romans put it in, and on, just about everything they ate. A 4th century cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, contained garum in almost every single one of its recipes, including a sweet soufflé made of pears.

Garum was exported from Italy to faraway places like Lebanon, Britannia, and North Africa. Roman legionaries were issued garum regularly to spice up their meals during their travels; it was a staple for the legionaries the way a ketchup packet would have been to a 20th century U.S. soldier.

Garum became extinct in Europe with the collapse of the Roman and Byzantine empires, but some versions of it carry on in to the modern day; Worcestershire sauce has its origins in Roman garum, as does the Italian condiment colatura di alici. Fermented fish sauces popular in southeast Asia, Nước mm (Vietnam) and nam pla (Thailand) are nearly identical to Roman garum.

An ancient recipe for garum comes to us from a famous poet of the ancient world, Martialis. De medicina et de virtute herbarum (Medicines and virtuous herbs) was written nearly 2,000 years ago, in the first century A.D. Despite being a staple in nearly every Roman recipe, garum was first and foremost considered a medicinal health food. It was a probiotic fermented sauce, high in vitamins A and D, iron, calcium, and best of all amino acids containing glutamic acid, a source of umami (the fifth taste). The Romans recommended it for treatment of several digestive issues, no doubt due to the fact that garum contained many probiotic enzymes. Glutamic acid is also found in MSG, which is used as a food additive to make food irresistible.

Martialis’ book on medicines contains the following recipe for garum:

Use fatty fish, for example, sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart capacity. Add dried, aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others, making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small, leave them whole, if large, use pieces) and over this, add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for 20 days. After that, it becomes a liquid.

Localizing an ancient recipe

Lacking precise measurements, ancient recipes allow for a fair amount of creativity. Based on what was in season last summer when we made our garum, we chose oregano and mint for the herbs. This made the finished product something I would describe as a Mediterranean-style soy sauce. We use it in soups, gravies, pasta sauces, serve it with sushi — basically any time you would use soup stock or soy sauce in cooking. With just a few additions it can be turned into a zingy Worcestershire sauce or a spicy Thai dipping sauce for spring rolls.

Photo by Lisa McBride.
Garum can be made with whatever plants and herbs are in season, locally. Last year we used oregano from our garden and wild mint foraged from the Waterford River in St. John’s. Photo by Lisa McBride.

We fermented our garum in a food-grade 5 gallon bucket. We took two grocery bags filled with capelin, 4 pounds of coarse Newfoundland sea salt and a few dozen branches of both oregano and mint, foraged from our garden and the Waterford River, respectively. Capelin are small, so they are left whole. The fish was layered according to the recipe, alternating between herbs, fish, and salt.

Several layers later, and the bucket is nearly full when all the ingredients are in. All that’s left to do at this point is to stir the mixture regularly, and wait. Ensure the bucket has the lid firmly attached — the smell does not carry but you sure will have a curious kitty on your hands if you have a cat!

Along the warm Mediterranean, the fermentation process takes 27 days, according to Martial. Here, above the 47th parallel, things take a little longer; our garum took about 60 days to fully ferment. It is fairly easy to tell when it’s done, as the entire mixture will be submerged in what smells like fishy brown soy sauce. Pluck out one of the capelin. If it is hard, empty-feeling and fairly dry, your sauce is done. Remove all of the solids, and pour the sauce through a fine felt or paper filter, and then bottle it up.

Photo by Lisa McBride.
After 60 days in the bucket, our garum was ready to bottle! Photo by Lisa McBride.

It was quite popular in Late Roman times to add some red wine or grape juice to garum. We added 1 litre of blueberry wine instead, to give a bit more of a local dash to our 4 gallon batch of garum — and it rounded out the flavour very nicely. The finished product tasted zippy, slightly tangy, with a mild seafood finish. A hint of Italy crept in through the notes of oregano, and a nice, cool finish was added from the mint as it danced across my tongue.

So, the next time you’re sitting on a bag or two of capelin in your freezer — or better yet if you’ve just gone out and caught some — consider bringing an ancient tradition back to life with a bit of a Newfoundland flair. Try making your own local garum! It’s the secret source of delicious umami you’ve been waiting for.

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