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The Bizarre Flavor That Tells The Story Of Ancient Rome

Have you ever wondered when and where was your favorite meal invented or discovered? You’d be surprised of how many delicious treats that we consume regularly have been eaten for centuries and millennia. For instance, did you know ancient Egyptians already enjoyed from the sweet delight of marshmallows? Or that pancakes were a classic breakfast delicacy for ancient Greeks, who ate them with honey? Food has always played an important role in the evolution of each society, and in that same way, it’s become quite a historical documentation to understand past societies, their way of living, and their understanding of the world. Each society throughout history has had their own characteristic flavors or a particular food that defines and explains so many things about their everyday life. That’s the case of garum sauce in the history of ancient Rome.

Made with the inner organs of different types of fish such as anchovies or tuna, left to ferment, and layered with salt under the rays of the sun, garum was used by cooks to make almost every single meal. But more than just seasoning, garum has also been used to determine the accuracy of important event dates, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the consequent annihilation of the city of Pompeii. 

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As historians have reported, one good equivalent of this particularly savory sauce would be ketchup and its use in modern life. However, there are documents from the time garum was used that prove it was way more popular. At the time, salt was one of the few condiments and was also used to prevent food from rotting, but garum gave a new option to experiment with flavor.

When we think of ancient civilizations, we generally see them as completely distant and primitive compared to our modern lifestyle, but history has shown us that they were really ahead, or at least they followed life structures not unlike ours. For instance, they had complex sewage systems that became an example to follow for other countries. Garum not only helped historians verify the exact date of the eruption of the Vesuvius, but it also has made much more for our understanding of history. It has shown that ancient Romans had well-set factories where this sauce was massively produced. This makes us think of an early industrialization or industrial economical system. In other words, if they had mass factories for garum, imagine what other products were made in that production system.

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The consumption of garum was so common and popular that there were many kinds with different flavors, ingredients, and quality levels. According to estimations, one of the finest and most expensive garum bottles was sold for the equivalent of 500 dollars, but there was a cheaper version consumed by poor people and slaves.

How did this seasoning disappear? That’s another way garum has been used as evidence of all ancient Rome’s history. The last remains of garum found in archaeological sites coincide with the end of the Roman Empire. When its decadence was evident, they started increasing the taxes on everyday products, and salt, one of the sauce’s main ingredients, was one of the many that suffered from these measures. In addition to that, pirates ravished entire cities, destroying every single garum factory in the Empire. In that way, both garum and the great Roman Empire came to an end.

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Despite the fact that garum disappeared, its essence remained as an essential flavor of traditional Italian cuisine. Even today, there are sauces with similar fermentation processes and, naturally, some are sold as the original garum that ancient Romans savored every day. So, this particular sauce and flavor, which would seem so basic and unimportant, actually sheds a lot of light on this enigmatic and captivating civilization.

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