Archaeology and Worcestershire sauce

Many people who enjoy Worcestershire sauce don’t realize that its roots go all the way back to ancient Rome.  A fermented fish sauce called garum was very popular there, and a staple product of regional economies.  It’s just made the news again, in connection with an archaeological discovery.

Archaeologists have come across a vast network of underwater ruins making up the ancient Roman city once known as Neapolis, which was largely washed away by a powerful tsunami around 1,700 years ago.

The dramatic deep sea find includes streets, monuments, and around a hundred tanks used to produce garum – a fermented fish sauce that was a popular condiment in ancient Rome and Greece and is likely to have been a significant factor in the Neapolis economy.

Expeditions to find Neapolis, involving researchers from the Tunisian National Heritage Institute and the University of Sassari in Italy, have been running since 2010, but the breakthrough came recently thanks to favourable weather conditions.

“It’s a major discovery,” the head of the team, Mounir Fantar, told AFP. “This discovery has allowed us to establish with certainty that Neapolis was a major centre for the manufacture of garum and salt fish, probably the largest centre in the Roman world.”

There’s more at the link.

Fermented fish sauces similar to garum are common in numerous cultures.  The Nibble observes:

The use of garum died out along with the Roman Empire, but fermented fish products survive in Western cuisine in the form of anchovy paste, our modern allec; and Worcestershire sauce—a fermentation of anchovies, onions, shallots, cloves, garlic, vinegar, molasses, chili peppers, soy sauce, pepper, tamarinds, corn syrup and water—which actually derived from the British occupation of India. And garum does survive in the ancient fish sauces of Asia, which appear to have a very similar method of production: Vietnamese nuoc nam, Thai nam pla and Cambodian tuk trey, Burma’s ngan-pya-yem, Korea’s jeotgal, Laos’s nam pa and Philippines’ patis and bagoong. Other relatives include the Malaysian shrimp paste belachan and a similar product in Myanmar called nga-pi.

In Vietnam, nước mắm became legendary (or notorious, depending upon taste) to a generation of US servicemen (like, for example, this sailor) in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  You can learn more about its many variations here.

If you’d like to try making the original garum, there are recipes available online.  However, be warned:

Many authors write about how terrible and disgusting garum is.  Pliny the Elder called it, ‘that secretion of putrefying matter’.  Plato called it, ‘putrid garum’.  And Martial praised a man for still loving a woman who had eaten many helpings of garum.

Of course, modern Worcestershire sauce also offers certain . . . challenges.



  1. The ancient Norse and Scandinavian cultures had something similar. Dig a hole in the permafrost, toss in fish, cover, come back year or more later and scoop. Yum.

    Or… not.

    I have enough problem with creamed pickled herring.

  2. Look up lutefisk on Wikipedia, then do a link-wander from there. A lot of regional cultures have rotted fish dishes.

  3. I will not eat lutefisk and yams,
    I will not eat them, Sam-I-Am!

    The stupid filk songs that stick in your mind for way too long.

  4. Apparently when Garum is being made the smell that comes off it is so foul that many Roman towns had laws stating that it could not be made inside the town limits.

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