What is for us today ketchup or mustard, for the Romans was garum. Garum was an addition necessary in exquisite Roman cuisine.
It appears in most of the recipes preserved in the work “De re coquinaria” of Apicius.
It was prepared like this: small fish or fish entrails (eg. mackerel, anchovies, sardines, sprats, marinades, anchovies or tuna) were thrown into the dish. All this was salted and mixed in a large dish with herbs (like fennel, fennel, coriander, celery, savory, sage, rue, mint, lovage, thyme, marjoram) and exposed to the sun even for a month. During this time, the fermentation process took place in the vessel, during which the juice emitted from the fish. The contents of the vessel were drained and the resulting liquamen liquid was used as the spice. But why was garum used if the smell was disgusting? This substance is responsible for the umami taste. This is the fifth taste, next to salty, sweet, sour and bitter (the taste is not spicy, it is irritation of the nerves by irritants). Umami flavor, which receptors are mainly located on the inside of the cheeks, is responsible for detecting dishes containing protein, such as broad beans, meat, cheese and others. Very large amounts of glutamate are found in seaweed, parmesan, anchovies, soy sauce, mushrooms or in tomatoes. It is artificially added to broth cubes, “baguette dishes” or “maggi” type spices.
These products significantly enrich the taste of dishes because the man instinctively seeks three flavors: sweet, which means energy, sour, which means vitamins and umami, which means protein. A small addition of garum enriched the bland taste of barley or lentil soup. Garum was not produced in homes, but in specialized factories located near ports. Probably everyone used their own recipe, hence the ingredients of the sauce may have been different.
Roman doctors used garum for dyspepsia, ulcerations, ischiasis, tuberculosis and migraine. Garum was even used as an ingredient in cosmetics and to remove unwanted hair and freckles.
Undiluted garum probably had an intense, not very pleasant smell. Martialis wrote:
Some unguent rare was kept with care
In a small onyx dish.
Papilus came and smelt the same —
And now it’s putrid fish!
– Martialis, Epg., VII, 94
However, the poet probably valued the sauce himself; as he sent a gift, adding a note “Accept this exquisite garum, a precious gift made with the first blood spilled from a living mackerel”. In turn, Seneca the Yougher called them “the expensive liquid of bad fish”.