Ingredient Spotlight: Garum, the Fermented-Fish Flavouring

May 20, 2018, 6:59 pm

Deeply savoury and rich in umami, garum is a traditional fermented fish sauce that was so popular, it was mass-produced throughout the Roman Empire. This protein-laden condiment was added to all manner of savoury foods as a flavour enhancer – in fact, it’s been described as the ketchup of the ancient world. It appeared in many Roman recipes and was often mixed with wine, vinegar, black pepper or oil to further enhance its tang or diluted with water to make an invigorating drink for the empire’s legionnaires.

Garum was made in giant vats by layering fresh fish guts with bands of salt and aromatic herbs, before leaving the mixture to ferment under the Mediterranean sun for several months until it reached the desired level of pungency. Once ready, the resultant mixture was strained, producing a thick, amber-coloured sauce. The remaining wet paste, known as allec, was still used as a condiment, but was less complex in flavour and seen as an inferior product to the highly prized garum.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, this once ubiquitous sauce quickly faded into obscurity. However, its legacy still lives on today. Modern-day fermented fish sauces the likes of colatura di alici from southwest Italy, Southeast Asian fish sauces such as Vietnamese nuoc mam, and even Britain’s Worcestershire and anchovy sauces all owe a debt to Rome’s original garum.

Thanks to the trend for fermented foods (on which we’ve reported extensively) a shift towards artisanal products and a growing respect for the recipes of the past, there’s a new wave of chefs experimenting with making their own versions of garum. Some of those championing and creating homemade garums include Heston BlumenthalRené RedzepiRobin Gill and Stevie Parle.

Trendsetters: who’s using it?

  • In London, Sager & Wilde, in Hackney, and The Dairy, in Clapham, both regularly have garum on the menu – recent examples from both respectively include: Cornish hake, chicory catalogna and anchovy sauce; and charred mackerel, purple sprouting broccoli and garum hollandaise.
  • English Hippy (aka John Chantarasak, chef at London restaurant Som Saa) makes an Anglo-style garum using either squid or mackerel, which he incorporates into his Thai-inspired cooking – for example, mixing it with palm sugar as a sweet and savoury glaze for freshly grilled mackerel.
  • Stevie Parle (of Craft and Palatino) makes his own garum, not by fermenting it in the traditional way, but by using barley treated with aspergillus (otherwise known as koji mould, which is the basis of miso paste). His garum is made using waste fish from his restaurant – typically, mackerel, cuttlefish or squid – and has an amazingly deep and richly savoury flavour that makes it much more complex than Asian fish sauce. He recommends using it as a seasoning or a butter for meat or vegetables, or making it into an emulsion sauce to serve with steak tartare.
  • Garum Restaurant, in Perth, Australia, is a contemporary Roman osteria with a menu that blends local produce with ancient techniques, and serves the likes of quail cooked with honey, garum, fennel, currants and pine nuts, and kingfish crudo with barley, sorrel, cucumber and garum.
  • Restaurant Haervaerk, in Aarhaus, Denmark, uses an artisanal garum (pictured above) made by sea-salt producers Nordur & Co, which they create using their own salt and Icelandic mackerel.
  • Also in Northern Europe, the Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit, open-source organisation created by chefs Claus Meyer and René Redzepi that explores the edible potential of the Nordic region, has developed a unique take on garum. Looking to the future of food, it has experimented with making garum from fermented insects rather than fish. So far, it has made single-species garums using grasshopper, crickets, wax-moth larvae, bee larvae and mealworms, with each having its own particular colour, texture and flavour profile. Although unlikely to make it to the mass market any time soon, it highlights how the simple act of fermenting can be used to enhance just about anything.


Image: Courtesy of Nordur & Co

Content: courtesy of Flavour Feed


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