Garum: Eat like a Roman Soldier

Written by Heather Atwood on June 3rd, 2011

When a ridiculously obscure recipe makes two separate appearances in a week, it has to be tried.

“Garum,” kept by Claudius’s troops in small flasks even as they marched upon Britain, probably the way U.S. troops keep packets of ketchup, closely resembles Vietnamese Fish Sauce, Nuoc Mam, but it was produced and enjoyed a world away, affirming that nothing is really new under the sun, or in one’s clay pot.

I first learned about Garum sitting at a dinner beside military historian Rene Chartrand who has written volumes, from French Fortresses in North America, to just about everything about The Napoleonic Wars, to Canadian Forces in World War II.

He’s also written an article about Garum, referencing Apicius (Apicius On the Subject of Cooking – De Re Coquinaria), a 1st century foodie who lived at the same time Claudius and his troops were enjoying the fermented fish sauce on their Dover sole.

Here’s how Chartrand describes ancient Roman cuisine, specifically Garum:

Honey and vinegar were regularly used, often together for a sweet-sour effect. But the most distinctive flavoring ingredients were garum, a salty fish essence, and two sweeteners made from grapes, possum and defrutum. Of all Roman ingredients, Garum is surely the most intriguing. It seems to appear in almost every dish and sauce.

The recipe for Garum may be a little offputting. Its base was anchovies, left to ferment in brine for some weeks. A liquor was extracted and flavoured with different herbs and spices and defrutum or possum. We are told there were many different flavours of Garum made in both homes and factories (the furthest north found near London) throughout the empire. The end result was an intense salty, fishy sauce which would keep for many months. It is very likely that most legionaries carried a small personal flask in their kit with their bronze cooking pot and other necessities.

Within a week of my dinner with Renee, I picked up Esquire Magazine writer, John Mariani’s new book, How Italian Food Conquered The World. – There it was, p. 6, Garum.

The appetites of both wealthy Greek and Romas favored sweet and sour flavors of honey and vinegar; one of the principle flavorings was fermented fish sauce, along with spices like coriander, cumin, and oregano.

Mariani, too, referenced our old pal, Apicius, believing that De Re Coquinaria was probably compiled by Apicius’s slaves, intended as useful recipes for slaves of Apicius’s wealthy friends.

Appearing two times in one week, the Garum flag couldn’t be ignored.  Chartrand had told me he cooked with Garum all the time, and had recipes; I could, too.  The sauce is a snap, and certainly adds depth to dressing.  I’ve heard people say that the reason people are drawn to an “umami” taste is because it often contains protein; it’s therefore an evolutionary marker meant to lead us to a historically challenging nutritional need.  Chartrand’s recipe for leeks doused in Garum had that good umami taste, a little deeper and richer than the straight vegetable, but nothing overwhelming.  If I were a Roman Soldier facing a platter of leeks, I’d jump for my flask of Garum, too.

For more on Garum and pasta’s domination of the world, John Mariani will be visiting Bina Osteria on Monday, June 13.   The elegant Italian eatery in Boston’s Ritz Carlton will serve a special dinner at $40 per person honoring the author and his new book.  Mariani will be on hand to answer questions, and How Italian Food Conquered The World will be available for purchase.   I’ll be there, looking forward to talking about Claudius, Italy, the world, and wondering if Garum will make an appearance on the menu.

A recipe for Garum, and Leeks with Garum from Rene Chartrand


Salt, 1/2 pound
1 small can Anchovy filets
Oregano, one teaspoon
6 tablespoons Italian Vin Santo

Bring to the boil in 1 1/2 pints of water and cook briskly for about 15 minutes. Cool and strain three or more times through muslin till fairly clear. According to one scholar the result should be ‘of murky color, salty taste and pungent aroma’! This can be bottled and will keep for several weeks.

Porrus – Leeks with Garum

To serve four you will need:
Leeks, about 11/2 pounds
Olive oil, two tablespoons
Garum, one tablespoon
Red wine, half a glass

Boil the leeks in water with a pinch of salt and a little olive oil until tender but with a little bite. Drain, slice lengthwise and put in a dish. Pour on the Garum, olive oil and wine mixed up as a vinaigrette. This also may be eaten hot or cold with bread.

  • Andreasoldier

    I also believe garum is mentioned in one of Mark Kurlansky’s books; not sure if its “Cod” or “Salt,” probably “salt”, with a recipe!

  • heather atwood

    Now that you mention that, Andrea, I remember being horrified by the stuff in Kulansky’s book.  This isn’t so offensive.

  • Molly Parr

    I’m so happy to have this recipe. I first learned about garum in my high school Latin class. My teacher tried to make it sound terrible, but I remember thinking, gosh, I’d like to try that.

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