From the numerous allusions to garum by classical authors, and in particular the descriptions of it given by Pliny (1st century ad) and in the Geoponica (10th century), it is clear that there were many methods of manufacture. Sometimes the entrails of large fish were used; sometimes small fish, whole. Such small fish were often of the genus Atherina (see sand-smelt under silverside), which abounds in the Mediterranean and Black seas, or anchovy or small grey mullet or sea bream, or the like. The larger fish ranged down from the tuna to mackerel.
The liquid drawn off after the salted fish had fermented for about two months was garum or liquamen; allec or allex was the name of the solid residue, which also had culinary uses.
Archaeologists have found fish salteries and garum factories from the time of the Roman Empire along the coasts of Spain, Gaul, and Italy, and along the northern shores of the Black Sea. They have also found amphoras which had once contained garum of various qualities; at least one find, at Pompeii, still smelled distinctively of garum when excavated. The best quality of garum was garum sociorum (literally ‘partners’ garum’, a name for which a parallel in modern times would be that used for the principal kind of Roquefort cheese, de la Société).
Some Roman recipes call for garum mixed with wine, or olive oil, or water. However, Roman use of garum may be compared, in a general way, to modern use of salt, or that of soy sauce in China and Japan, besides the aforementioned fish sauces of SE Asia.
Although garum then fell into desuetude, some kindred products have survived in the Mediterranean, notably peï salat; and a product called ‘garum’ was advertised in a 19th-century English cookery book,
In more recent times the relationship between garum and SE Asian fish sauces has become apparent to those who are interested in recreating Roman dishes, who therefore simply substitute Vietnamese nuoc mam or the like for garum. The German gastronomic writer rumohr (1822) was possibly the first in modern times to show awareness of the relationship. See Grocock and Grainger, forthcoming.
© the Estate of Alan Davidson 1999, 2006, 2014 © in the Editor’s contribution to the second and third editions, Oxford University Press 2006, 2014.