Guts, gills and garum

zac o?yeah | Updated on February 08, 2019

Time travel: Roman ruins, known in ancient geographical texts as Lixus, on a low hill about four kilometres outside Larache   -  Zac O'Yeah

An ancient Roman condiment spurs the writer to travel to the coastal town of Larache, Morocco

The city of Tangier, on Morocco’s northern tip, historically controlled passage through the Straits of Gibraltar to and from the Mediterranean. As can be expected, it is one of those places that’s been populated for as long as humans have built themselves ports and ships, constantly razed and rebuilt, and, consequently, there are no ancient ruins to see. I still enjoy reading up on its history, sitting at a café with a name that bespeaks antiquity — Tingis, which was the erstwhile Roman moniker for their empire’s West African capital of the province Mauretania Tingitana.

The square where Café Tingis sits is believed to have been the forum where all manner of transactions took place, while the mosque down the road marks the site of the basilica or assembly hall. The present-day city walls stand atop the original Roman ones and the current kasbah is where the fortress used to be. But that was 2,000 years ago, and the last time any Roman buildings were visible hereabouts was a 1,000 years ago. The marvellous mosaic on display in the sultan’s palace museum, depicting a seafaring Venus with her nymphs, was brought more recently from an excavation site in interior Morocco.

But I’d heard rumours of a curious ruin outside the coastal town of Larache, and my studies confirm that Roman agricultural-industrial settlements did indeed exist south of Tangier, connected by well-engineered Roman roads that evolved into the Moroccan highways of today. So I hop into a shared, crammed Mercedes taxi (20 dirhams) that speeds on a fairly straight road to the next town and, from there, other shared taxis run the hour-long journey south to Larache. Taxi-hopping is the way to do Morocco.

The ruins, known in ancient geographical texts as Lixus, are situated on a low hill about four kilometres outside town, overlooking the Loukkos river. Whatever antiques have been found, such as an exquisite bronze of Greek hero Theseus battling the Minotaur, are housed at the national museum in Rabat, and left behind here in this ghost town are what one can no longer find in Tangier — a sacred hilltop complex, columns lining what used to be the main street, a crumbling citadel, remains of a bathing complex and an amphitheatre — all suggesting this was a major city of Mauretania Tingitana during its heyday in the early centuries CE.


My focus, as a foodie, is the remains of a food processing factory at the base of the southern slope — where the fiery fish-based garum sauce of the Romans was manufactured. While they were known to import their favourite spices from afar, such as Indian pepper from Kerala, the garum produced here was their much-beloved condiment. According to Roman Cookery, a collection of recipes adapted for modern kitchens by Jane Renfrew, one teaspoon went into almost every dish, including some desserts. It was also used as a dip for oysters and eggs.

While food historians speculate at their scholarly get-togethers on what exactly garum was, here in the factory at Lixus I can fairly imagine how it was produced. I count about 15 huge 16,000-litre basins arranged in a neat grid that, as per my estimate, may together have held 250 tonnes of garum at any given point of time. And this is only one out of some 10 plants believed to have existed in this area, with a total capacity to produce millions of amphorae of garum annually.

Fish-side story: One of the 15 basins in an ancient factory at Lixus. The city was probably the largest garum producer in the Mediterranean region   -  Zac O'Yeah


In fact, Lixus was probably the largest garum producer in the western Mediterranean region — and it boggles the mind to learn that amphorae of the stuff were shipped from here to Britain as well as India (garum amphorae have been recovered at excavations in Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu) and perhaps China too.

Near the pickling basins are dried-up water storage cisterns and a kind of well, perhaps water from which was used for cleaning the fish, which was often anchovy or some other small, oily catch. Fish liver, guts, blood, bones, gills and scales were mashed and chucked into the basins. Tiny fish were thrown in whole. The basins were also filled with 11 per cent ocean salt, or briny water, and then the goo was left to decompose slowly in the sun. Occasionally, it had to be stirred, letting off a murderously rotten smell. As per regulations, garum plants had to be at least half a kilometre from the nearest habitation — so foul was the stench.

According to what can be gleaned from ancient sources, it took two months — and, for the extra-deluxe garum, as many as nine months — for the digestive enzymes from the fishes’ rotting guts to dissolve the offal in a way that it didn’t putrefy, but macerated. After fermentation, it was compressed to yield an amber-coloured clear juice. This was filtered, boiled and thickened to a paste, which made it lighter to transport. Buyers could then dilute it with vinegar or oil or honey into a sauce, flavour it with herbs like oregano or even precious Indian black pepper to create fancy varieties such as the garum piperatum. The better garum cost anywhere between 250 and 2,000 sesterces per litre (at a time when a labourer’s salary was 1,000 sesterces per month); but the coarser feculent residue was sold at a bargain rate and was known as allec.

It’s hard today to fathom what garum tasted like, but I’d imagine it was a brownish savoury paste like the fish chutneys from India’s North-Eastern states — apparently it was acidic enough to cause gastric ulcers if one overindulged. Roman intellectuals of the time pointed out that garum eaters tended to burp frequently and had truly stinky morning breath, and although it was considered an aphrodisiac they wondered how anybody could kiss a garum-fiend. But used in tiny quantities, it was delicious.


Returning to Larache, I have a soda pop in a café overlooking a winding creek, where a caravan of fishing boats drifts downriver towards the ocean. I wonder where one might taste garum today, if at all. At the end of the Roman Empire, the garum industries of course shut down here and there’s no identical product in the West today, though one could argue that the lethal Egyptian fesikh and Swedish surströmming, local delicacies consisting of fermented fish, might be distant descendants of garum. Renfrew’s afore-referenced little Roman Cookery book suggests it can be substituted with soy sauce (“Blasphemy!” exclaims my Italian friend Stefano). However, fish sauce is, interestingly, a key ingredient in modern Eastern cooking — apart from the fermented fish chutney of the North-Eastern tribal cuisines, in Kolkata’s old Chinese quarters I found a Chinese plant that makes anchovy sauce, which could well be thought of as a watered-down variety of garum. Many other Far Eastern cuisines have related sauces. Perhaps they were inspired by Roman garum exported along the Silk Road. After all, Asian fish sauce production only started after the Roman production ended.

Catch your breath: Anchovies were used in the making of heavily fermented fish sauce   -  ISTOCK.COM


But what about Morocco? Quick googling reveals that Agadir-based fishery company AMASCOP sells canned salted anchovy, claiming to have developed the ancient industry to perfection (at least, according to their web page), but much as I look in grocery shops in Morocco, I don’t find their produce — it’s only made for the foreign markets, as locals prefer their fish fresh. Apparently the only aspects of Moroccan cuisine that hark back to the Roman era are the omnipresent olives served with each meal and the tagine dishes that combine savoury and sweet ingredients, such as dried fruits with meat, cooked in conical earthenware pots, which the Berbers developed from Roman clay cooking vessels.

After inspecting the ruins outside Larache, I take a bus 150 km further down the old Roman road, now a modern highway crossing a dreary landscape with occasional poor villages, to Rabat, the current Moroccan capital and erstwhile location of Sala Colonia, the southernmost Roman base on the African west coast. A part of town is still known as Chellah — now a walled-in park area with assorted ruins.

I walk about in the not-so-spectacular Sala Colonia ruins and explore the minuscule collection of antiques in the world’s possibly smallest national museum of archaeology, but find no further clues about what happened to garum. But what I do find is an agreeable bar, Tables de Terminus, just outside the railway station. They don’t have any anchovies on the menu, so I make do with pili-pili crevettes — spicy prawns in piquant gravy — and fruity-beefy tagine (170 dirhams). And while it doesn’t taste of garum, it is maybe as perfect a food experience as one can expect to have in Morocco today.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com

Published on February 08, 2019

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