Archaeologists recently discovered a Roman shipwreck off the coast of northeastern Italy that dates back to the 1st or 2nd century CE. Unlike other recent aquatic finds such as the Spanish galleon San Jose, this submerged craft wasn’t laden with gold, jewels, or other precious relics. Instead, The Local reports that it once contained 3000 jars of a fermented fish sauce called garum—a condiment that’s considered the “ketchup” of the ancient Mediterranean.
Garum was a clear, fish-based sauce that ancient gourmands drizzled over savory dishes. Over the years, archaeologists have uncovered garum factories in Spain, Portugal, and northern Africa, indicating that the pungent sauce was widely enjoyed. While there were many types of garum, a variety of factors—including the collapse of the Roman Empire, pirate attacks on coastal cities with garum factories, and a new tax on salt—caused the once-common sauce to gradually disappear from kitchens across the Mediterranean.
This Roman ship was likely transporting garum and wine between Italy, Spain, and Portugal when it sank. Over millennia, the fishy sauce seeped out of the jars, leaving behind thousands of empty clay vessels. While maybe not as exciting as treasure, this recovered cargo provides a peek into the culinary lives of one of history’s greatest civilizations. It also makes us marvel at how much our taste buds have changed in a few short millennia. After all, can you imagine pouring a condiment made from fermented fish over your hot dog? Actually, maybe that's not so crazy. One garum expert says it probably tasted like the fish sauce used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking today.
To learn more about how the Romans made garum, watch the video above.
All images courtesy of YouTube.