IT was called "garum" and it was as ubiquitous on Ancient Roman dining tables as a bottle of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, Mexican salsa or German Maggi is on tables in modern cultures.
This powerful fish sauce was loved by many Romans, who ladled it over everything they ate ... and absolutely detested by many other Romans, whose stomachs turned at the mere scent of it.
The image above is a spoof mosaic saying "Beware of Garum" (a pun on "Cave Canem" ... "Beware of Dog") but many Ancient Romans no doubt would have welcomed such a warning at a taverna doorway.
Garum was an essential condiment for Romans, both patrician and plebian. It was made by curing chopped and salted fish innards in earthen amphores. These jars were left in the sun for up to three months as the mixture fermented.
Production of garum was often relegated to areas removed from residential and business districts because the stench was so over-powering.
The final product varied widely in quality and an ancient recipe book even offers advice about how to "reclaim" spoiled garum.
And now garum fish sauce is back ... thanks to Spanish researchers at the Universities of Cádiz and Seville, who hope to market it commercially. They already have a name: "Flor de Garum" (Garum Blossom), according to A NEWS REPORT.
Initial taste tests involving about 30 chefs are encouraging ... though most of the cooks admit that garum is an acquired taste and must be used sparingly.
Petri Benitez, the head chef of Venta Melchor, used it as a condiment in tuna tartar.
"I dispensed with salt because the little dash of garum sauce was already salty enough," he said. "The flavor is very reminiscent of the sea, fishy and salty. But it's a nice aroma, very soft, very subtle. It would be a good substitute for soy sauce."
Blas Perez, head chef at Hotel Conil Park, concurred,, saying, "I think it can be a wonderful complement to a chowder or seaman's stew."
Alvaro Rodriguez and Josefina Alcantara Sanchez Garcia are two young researchers working on this project.
Both are convinced that, after a hiatus of 1,400 years, the time has come to re-introduce garum to modern palates.
They are now looking for 30,000 euros in start-up funding to bottle garum for the specialty gourmet sector and restaurants.