Posts Tagged ‘Fish sauce’

Work in the Ashkelon excavation (Anat Rasiuk, Israel Antiquities Authority)


Although a staple of the Roman Empire, very few garum production sites or cetariae have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean

A small 1st century factory that produced fermented fish sauce — arguably the most desirable foodstuff of the Roman era — was recently uncovered during excavations near the southern coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon. It is one of the only identified industrial sites for production of the ubiquitous odorous sauce that has been found in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“We have something really unusual here,” Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini told The Times of Israel on Monday when the find was announced.

While the idea of fermented fish sauce or garum may not spark salivation in modern palates, the slimy stuff was considered one of the most delicious flavors of the Roman Empire. According to Erickson-Gini, the precious goop added both salty and savory flavors to food and was used in the vast majority of recipes known from the era.

“I think of it as a condiment, but it went well beyond that,” Erickson-Gini said. “It’s hard for us to imagine. It was far more common than ketchup.”

At the 2,000-year-old site, located two kilometers (a mile and a quarter) northwest of the city of Ashkelon, Erickson-Gini’s team uncovered several installations that, when taken together, left the archaeologist with little doubt that she was looking at a rare Holy Land garum production center, or cetaria, she said. Though there are few examples in the eastern Mediterranean, she said that in the Iberian Peninsula, specifically Malaga, there are several installations that mirror what she has uncovered in Ashkelon.

The Ashkelon site was excavated ahead of the construction of an Eco-Sport Park. Local pupils and youth aided in the excavation, which was underwritten by the Municipality of Ashkelon and the Ashkelon Economic Co.

In addition to evidence of fish pools, the team uncovered giant plastered vats, jars used for storing liquid, and what appears to be a large receptacle to hold the strained goopy substance.

While fish pools have been found elsewhere in the region, there is only one other identified location in Israel that may possibly have produced the garum, at Dor, said Erickson-Gini. According to what has so far been excavated, the Ashkelon site was not a major factory, and was possibly largely for local use.

The paucity of production sites had always surprised and puzzled the archaeologist, she said. Throughout the Empire, the sauce graced the tables of the Roman world’s rich and famous, as well as the troughs of commoners.

“What interests me is the fact that this product was very, very popular in the Roman and Byzantine period. As popular as it was, you’d expect to find a lot of installations. I’m shocked we haven’t found more of them in excavations,” she said.

Roman historian Pliny the Elder mentions the sauce throughout his “Natural History,” both as a foodstuff and as medicine. According to a recent National Geographic article on garum, Pliny “extols garum as a cure for dysentery and an effective treatment for dog bites. Pliny also recommended it for earaches, and believed that consuming African snails marinated in garum would ward off stomach troubles.”

The National Geographic article states that the sauce was considered so essential to the Roman diet “that a huge network of trade routes grew up to move the prized relish from fishery to plate. Like many delicacies today, the finest garum could sell for astronomical sums.”

Even in the storerooms of 1st century BCE King Herod’s isolated Masada palace, a rare labeled amphorae of garum was found that was possibly imported from Andalusia.

The secret’s in the sauce

The production of the malodorous sauce must have been a stomach-roiling business. In later periods, due to its powerful reek, laws were legislated that the prized fermented fish “ketchup” must be produced outside of urban centers.

To accomplish its pungent putrefaction, the craftsman would place whole small fish such as sardines or anchovies, or chopped up larger fish such as tuna or mackerel, at the base of a jar and pour on top of it spices and salt, followed by another fish layer, etc. According to Erickson-Gini, the recipe’s ratio called for five parts fish to one part salt.

A lively video, “Garum, Rome’s Favorite Condiment (Ancient Cooking),” on the Invicta History YouTube channel, said the concoction inside a closed jar would bake in the hot Mediterranean sun for a week as the fish deteriorated, but was saved from rot by the salt. It was then opened and stirred for another 20 days or more (Erickson-Gini suggested up to three months).

The resultant “puree of fish goop” was strained through a basket, and the strained liquid is the garum. Other, more solid leftovers could be made into a different sauce or lesser-regarded fish paste called allec.

There are several types of garum, and even a strictly kosher version called garum castimonarium that was guaranteed to be made from kosher fish, not shellfish.

Foodie fashion fades

The height of the garum fad was circa the 2nd century CE, but its use is recorded even much later.

According to an IAA press release, the Ashkelon production site was abandoned and industry in the area turned to viticulture.

Erickson-Gini said that even during the time of the garum production, there is evidence of wine presses and storage jars located only meters away. Later, circa 5th century in the Byzantine period a thriving monastic community produced wine.

Although there are scant artifacts from the central elaborately decorated church, three winepresses were built nearby, as well as a large kiln complex that would have produced jars to export the wine all over the Byzantine Empire. “Jars were found as far as England and Germany and Yemen,” said Erickson-Gini.

Later, the site was abandoned in circa the 7th century after the Islamic conquest. According to Erickson-Gini and evidence she found in refuse pits containing the bones of large pack animals, “nomadic families, probably residing in tents, dismantled the structures and sold the different parts for building material elsewhere.”


Read Full Post »



A Roman mosaic with fishing scene, found in Hippolytus House in greater Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Alberto Paredes/Alamy Stock Photo


Ancient whale bones have been found on three Roman fish processing sites close to the Strait of Gibraltar

original article:


Nicola DavisTue 10 Jul 2018 19.01 EDT

Ancient bones found around the Strait of Gibraltar suggest that the Romans might have had a thriving whaling industry, researchers have claimed.

The bones, dating to the first few centuries AD or earlier, belong to grey whales and North Atlantic right whales – coastal migratory species that are no longer found in European waters.

Researchers say this not only suggests these whales might have been common around the entrance to the Mediterranean in Roman times, but that Romans might have hunted them.

They add that Romans would not have had the technology to hunt whale species found in the region today – sperm or fin whales which live further out at sea – meaning evidence of whaling might not have been something archaeologists and historians were looking out for.

“It’s the coastal [species] that makes all the difference,” said Dr Ana Rodrigues, first author of the research from the Functional and Evolutionary Ecology Centre, CEFE, in France.

The right whale was once widespread in the North Atlantic, with breeding grounds off the northern coast of Spain and north west Africa, but was hunted by Medieval Basque whalers among others, and are now only found in the Western North Atlantic. Grey whales disappeared from the North Atlantic some time in the 18th century, and are now only found in the Pacific.

Until the recent discoveries it was unclear whether the whales’ habitat had ever included the Mediterranean: the region is southerly enough for the animals to potentially calve there after feeding in more northerly areas. While there are a handful of historical reports of right whales cropping up in the Mediterranean, the only reliable grey whale sighting in the region was in 2010 and is thought to have been a misguided individual that turned up from the Pacific.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Rodrigues and a team of archaeologists and ecologists, describe how they set out to unpick the issue by examining 10 bones – thought to be from whales – collected during recent archaeological digs or housed in museum collections. These bones came from five sites – four around the Strait of Gibraltar and one site on the coast of north-west Spain, three of which were linked to the Roman fish-salting and fish-sauce making industries.

The team combined previous anatomical analysis with new analyses based both on DNA extracted from the bones and their collagen – a protein whose makeup differs between groups of species, and which degrades more slowly than DNA.

While one of the bones was found to be from a dolphin and another from an elephant – possibly a war animal – three were identified as grey whales, and two as North Atlantic right whales with another also suspected of being from this latter species. All were found by carbon-dating as being from either Roman or pre-Roman times – findings backed up by dating based on information from the archaeological sites.

The team say the discovery suggests grey and North Atlantic right whales were common in the waters around the Strait of Gibraltar during Roman times, since whale bones rarely end up in the archaeological record and they are not prized possessions.

This theory is backed up by writings from the time: Pliny the Elder – a fervent naturalist who died down the coast from Pompeii during the volcanic disaster – appears to reference whales calving in the coastal waters off Cadiz in the winter in his Naturalis Historia. And if the whales were present, the team say, it is possible the Romans hunted them.

The team say the location of the bones, and other evidence, suggests whales might even have entered further into the Mediterranean sea itself to calve.

Dr Vicki Szabo, an expert in whaling history from Western Carolina University said the study offered a rare glimpse into the past habitats of the whales, and backed up ideas that industrial hunting might have happened far earlier than widely thought, although its scale is unclear. “Whales are considered archaeologically invisible because so few bones are transported from shore to site, so I think in that context this concentration of species that they have is meaningful,” she said.

Mark Robinson, professor of environmental archaeology at the University of Oxford, said there have been suggestions for a decade that some Roman sites with fish vats in the region might have been linked to whaling. “The Greek author Oppian, writing in the 2nd century AD, describes whales being hunted in the Western Mediterranean by harpooning them on the surface, also using tridents and axes to kill them, lashing them to a boats and then dragging them to the shore.”

However Dr Erica Rowan, a classical archaeologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, said while the study suggests the habitats of the whales probably extended to include the Gibraltar region, how common the whales were and whether the Romans industrially hunted them as they did fish such as tuna remains unclear – not least because the study included just a handful of bones from a period spanning several hundred years.

“I think that if these whales were present in such numbers and were being caught on an industrial scale that we would have more evidence, perhaps not in the zoo archaeological record but in the ceramic record and in the literary sources,” she said. “The Romans ate and talked about an enormous variety of fish and seafood, and if whale was widely exploited and exported, then it is strangely absent from many discussions.”

But Rodrigues is more hopeful about what the discovery tells us. “I think [this study] can change our perspective of the Roman economy,” she said.




Read Full Post »

A large Roman  ship that sank full of fish sauce has been discovered of Italy's coast. Photo:Boris Horvat/AFP

A large Roman ship that sank full of fish sauce has been discovered of Italy’s coast. Photo:Boris Horvat/AFP


Original Article:

the local.it

December 11, 2015

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient Roman vessel laden with 3000 jars of delicious Roman fish sauce – or garum – on the seabed off the coast of Italy.


The find was presented on Thursday by archaeologists, who spent almost two years searching for the 25-meter wreck in the deep blue waters five miles of the coast of Alassio, in the northeastern Liguria region.

“It’s an exceptional find that dates to the first or second century AD,” Dr. Simon Luca Trigona, who led the team, told The Local.

“It’s one of just five ‘deep sea’ Roman vessels ever to be found in the Mediterranean and the first one to be found off the coast of Liguria. We know it was carrying a large cargo of garum when it sank.”

The presence of an ancient vessel on the seabed was signalled to archaeologists in 2012, when local fisherman dredged up fragments of some clay jars that had been part of the vessel’s payload 2000 years ago.

In spite of the presence of a ship being known, locating the actual wreck was the fruit of a painstaking search. The Roman cargo ship was buried at a depth of 200 meters and underwater archaeologists spent two years scouring the seabed before they finally located it in October.

In spite of the mystery that usually surrounds ancient shipwrecks, it is almost certain that the ship was sailing a route between Italy, Spain and Portugal in order to transport a precious cargo of Roman garum. The clue lies in the shape of the clay jars, as the sauce itself has all since seeped into the sea.

“After we filmed the wreck and analyzed an amphora [clay jar] and some fragments that a robotic craft brought back to the surface, we realized the ship was carrying a huge quantity of fish sauce when it sank,” said Trigona

“The amphora are almost all of a certain type, which was used exclusively for garum.”

Garum – a sauce made by fermenting salted fish intestines – was a mainstay of banqueting tables and street food stands across the Roman empire.

The sauce was highly prized for its nutritional qualities and was also a rich source of monosodium glutamate – a compound widely used in the food industry today as a flavour enhancer.

In addition to the fish sauce, archaeologists also identified two types of jar which were only manufactured in the area around the river Tiber in Rome. It is thought they were probably being used to transport some of the area’s excellent regional wines to the Iberian peninsular.

“It’s a nice find because it means we are almost sure about the route this ship was on,” Trugona said.
“She most likely sailed out of Rome along the Tiber and sank a couple of weeks later while making the return journey, weighed down by all that fish sauce.”

For now, no further analysis of the wreck is planned and Trigona called for vigilance in order to protect the sunken cargo from would-be looters.

“At 200 meters nobody will be able to dive it but that won’t stop people trying to pull things up using deep sea fishing nets.”


Read Full Post »

 Topic: Fish sauce

If you’re like me, the last post on the convoluted origins of our favorite fermented condiment—ketchup—probably left you wondering: What is the difference between Roman garum than modern Thai fish sauce?

What little I know comes from an experiment performed by Sally Grainger, author of Cooking Apicus, recounted in the book Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods. Grainger is a British chef and an experimental archeologist. She looked at studies on fish sauce amphorae (ceramic vessels) from archeological sites in Spain and North Africa. One of her more fascinating sources comes from a 2,000-year-old shipwreck discovered off the coast of Grado, Italy. The ship was full of fish—maybe even live ones. Italian researchers found that the vessel contained what amounts to a giant fish tank—a hydraulic system capable of transporting 440 pounds of live parrotfish (Scarus ssp.) from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The wreck also contains 600 amphorae, some with well-preserved fish sauce inside.

Using these studies and a recipe from Geoponica, a 10th century collection of agricultural lore, as a guide, Grainger added salted sardines (Pilchardus sardines) and sprats (Sprattus sprattus) to barrels, put the barrels in a greenhouse, and covered the tops with cardboard. Then she waited two months. What’s surprising, Grainger found, was that the recreated ancient fish sauce appeared to be a lot less salty than its modern Southeast Asian counterparts, with just as much protein. Salt slows down the enzymatic process, so industrial-scale fish sauces today—what you might otherwise think of cheaply made “fast” food—actually take longer to make than the ancient brews. In other words, this old, “slow food” fermented faster.

On one final note, for those of you interested in doing some fishy home-brewing, Ken Albaba, author of the forthcoming Lost Arts of Hearth and Home, told me he made a batch last year. Albaba said it was fun and, moreover, “Not stinky in the least. Almost pure umami in fact.”

Original Article:

smithsonian magazine

by Peter Smith, March 1,2012

Read Full Post »


Lars Williams, an American chef, works aboard a boat in Copenhagen’s harbor that is home to the Nordic Food Lab and the testing ground for one of the world’s most celebrated kitchens. He and his colleagues have embarked on an intriguing quest to discover new flavors using traditional techniques and Scandinavian products. To that end, he’s been fermenting herring and mackerel. “We tried something very simple—salt, fish, and left it in a warm place—and we got a clean, salty fish taste,” he says. “We’re trying to see if there’s a way to get more of that umami richness and less fishiness.”

Before you lose your lunch, consider the following: Fermented fish sauce is hardly a new idea, and it’s even been transformed into a familiar condiment you’ve probably slathered on burgers and fries.

Fish sauce probably started by accident: A fish caught in a rock pool essentially started to digest itself. Humans [1] eventually learned to harness the dual action of saline fermentation and enzymatic autolysis [2]. Modern scholars have not been able to definitively identify the Greek garos (γάρον), the small fish that probably gave rise to garum, a fermented fish sauce that proliferated throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. “Exactly how old garum is can’t be answered,” Robert I. Curtis, an expert in ancient food technology, told me, “but it certainly dates to at least the 7th century B.C.” Romans cooks used garum as an ordinary [3] and affordable condiment, much the way we sometimes use ketchup—to mask the flavors of otherwise off-putting foods.

The tomato sauce we now call ketchup arrived, circuitously, by way of Indonesia, where kecaps—fermented fish and soy sauces—greeted English sailors in the seventeenth century.[4] Nuoc mam, burong-isda, and other fermented fish sauces remain staple condiments across Southeast Asia, whereas Western fish sauce evolved into a tomato-based fermented corn product thanks, at least in part, to the accidental 1957 discovery of an enzyme that could turn corn into high fructose corn syrup.

Fish sauce makes use of naturally occurring substances in fish’s intestines or entrails; the gut of an Atlantic herring, for example, contains chymotrypsin (an enzymes that has been used as a food additive for, among other things, milk in France). Combined with bacteria (Leuconostoc mesenteroides and Lactobaccilus plantarum), the fermented fish transforms into various amino acids, including glutamic acid—the basis for the rich, mouth-coating umami flavor and the much-maligned MSG. Williams says he also adds Aspergillus orzyae starter culture, a mold intrinsic to Japanese cuisine—much like you’d add yeast to bread—to speed the aging process.

Microorganisms give rise to an incredible range of flavors and aromas. If different species mean different tastes, could the geographic range of microorganisms reflect a unique time and place—the Copenhagen harbor, the belly of a herring, or, more broadly, the Atlantic Ocean? Could fermented fish yield up a microbial species tied to place like the yeasts in San Francisco’s sourdough (Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis) or the lambic beers brewed in the Seine River valley (Brettanomyces bruxellensis)?
Rachel Dutton is a microbiologist at Harvard who has been studying microbial interactions. She’s using fermented dairy as a model organism—cheese as a lab rat, essentially. (I talked with her for a forthcoming story in Wired magazine.) “Most of the microbiological research that’s been done in the last 100 years has been focused on disease, for good reason,” she said. “But there’s a lot of diversity within groups of microbes. For example, Staph are found in cheeses and dried cured salamis and they’re not pathogens. The vast majority of microbes do not cause harm to humans, but the one percent that do have that potential. It’s a problem. Talking about the science that’s happening in these foods, how do you make it so people aren’t afraid of the science?”

Another group of chefs, led by Daniel Felder in New York City, suggest that fungal and bacterial cultures could be a way to rekindle our relation with nature. “In large urban environment like New York, alienated from the natural world, it is easy to become disconnected from the concepts of utilization and stewardship for our natural environment.” Perhaps the renewed enthusiasm for fermentation could be a way in—a kind of re-wilding by way of fish sauce, aged cow’s milk cheese, or even a historically accurate, ancient English ketchup. Fermentation could counter our exaggerated perception of microbial risk that’s led to the antiseptic status quo, where Purell®, hypoallergenic cats and antimicrobial everything proliferate.

Still, there’s one other ingredient to consider: disgust. “The fermentation process is one of the most interesting culinary processes,” Williams told me. “The microorganisms are far beyond what you can do with a Maillard reaction, but people say, ‘Fermentation is weird; this is gross or something you might find in the back of the fridge.’ Well, cheese and wine and beer and bread, those are all fermented products.”

Since we cannot readily or easily detect dangerous microorganisms, we may have evolved the predisposition to steer clear of rancid meats with a sense of disgust. As societies became more complex, disgust served as a social function, which may help explain why, on the one hand, fermented milk may sound delicious, while on the other, fish sauce may not.

As scientists continue to unravel the complexity and magic—how certain gut bacteria lead people to prefer or avoid certain foods—we’re still a ways off from revealing the secrets of how fish sauce, or modern condiments, have come to define us. “Where do these organisms in our gut come from, how they take up residence there, or how food-borne organisms impact what’s already there?” Dutton says. “How do they change us? We don’t really know yet.”

[1] Scholars diverge on the question of whether great apes ate fish—or, for that matter, fermented fish. Stephen Cunnane argues that the available amino acids in clams, frogs, and fish drove hominin encephalization. Katharine Milton doesn’t buy it. “If it’s just more of early humans lived by the sea and turned to marine resources sort of stuff and lo and behold their brain got bigger—you can stuff that one in a weighted sack and drop it in the deep blue sea. Brains run on glucose folks!”

[2] Ancient people were able to harness these process, to add chemicals and enzymes, despite the lack of knowledge about microorganisms—which would not emerge until Antony van Leeuwenhoek peered into his homemade microscope in 1665 and laid eyes upon living animalcules.

[3] In a testament to its everyday use, modern archeologists have even used garum to estimate the date upon which Vesuvius erupted based on the seasonal appearance of a sea bream that Linnaeus later classified as Boops boops.

[4] Initially deemed frivolous, historian Andrew F. Smith writes that ketchup’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities—touted in Henry Stubbes’s 1682 book—undoubtedly contributed to their proliferation.

Original Article:

By peter smith, feb 28, 2012


Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: