I noticed recently Mana was advertising for a ‘Chef of Fermentation’. That’s quite a specific job title in a hospitality marketplace that’s struggling to find sous chefs and KPs. But when you’re on a mission to net that second Michelin star it’s best to stay true to your culinary direction and gut feelings (sic).
Garum will certainly be on the kitchen to-do list for the new recruit. It entered the conversation early on in my first visit to the Ancoats Manchester game-changer. I’d already been impressed by dishes such as smoked yakitori eel, glazed with roasted yeast and blueberry vinegar, and Dungeness crab baked in hay celeriac and masa.
Chef patron Simon Martin had talked us through both. Next up was a raw oyster tucked taco style into a cabbage leaf with fudge miso, chicken fat, English wasabi, pine salt and chicken garum. In mid-explanation he was surprised by my knowledge of garum’s back story – the fermented fish sauce used as a condiment in the cuisines of Ancient Greece and Rome, not a million miles away from Thai fish sauce Nom Pla..
Simon had adapted garum to incorporate chicken. At his culinary alma mater, Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, they offer a whole palette of garums. Look at this beauty: rose and shrimp garum with a suitably rose-tinted description of what is essentially a whack of umami-rich funk.
“We take shrimps, water and salt, with fresh roses and blend it. It is naturally fermented by the enzymes inside the shrimps. During the foraging season last year, the fresh roses were added and they have been fermenting together ever since. The garum is quite intense by itself but the roses bring balance to it with its floral notes and sweetness.”
There’s a whole chapter on garum in The Norma Guide To Fermentation (Artisan, £30) by Redzepi and David Zibler, the man he entrusted to run the restaurant’s Fermentation Lab. Another member of the team convinced them to diverge from fish as the base. Hence, chicken, bee pollen and grasshoppers. All made is temperature controlled cylinders, leaving nothing to chance in this stinkiest of production processes.
That would probably be heresy to John Niland, chef owner of St Peter in Sydney, Australia. His ethos, laid out in his cookbook/manifesto, The Whole Fish, is to use all of the creature. Like Nose to Tail meat cooking, the object is not to waste the 60 per cent or so of a round fish that is routinely discarded in a western restaurant. Again one of the team (so democratic this new wave in the kitchen) came up with a sustainable garum.
“To produce the garum, start by adding 50 per cent of water to the total amount of heads, bones and scraps you have from small fish, such as sardine, mackerel, anchovies or trevally, then to this total quantity add 20 per cent of fine salt. Mix together, transfer to a mason (kilner) jar, seal and place in a circulator bath set to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Leave for seven days in the dark, stirring once daily. Make sure that the gall bladder is removed as it will make the finished sauce extremely bitter. This recipe is versatile and can be adapted to produce scallop, prawn (shrimp) or cuttlefish garums.”
In Niland’s follow-up book, Take One Fish: The new school of scale-to-tail eating (Hardie Grant, £26, to be published August 5) he goes one challenging step further with a recipe for custard tart, made with a sardine garum caramel made using the head, bones and scraps of sardines.
Leaving aside today’s state of the art equipment, it is a method the Ancients would have recognised. Garum was a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment in the cuisines of ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. Liquamen was a similar preparation, and at times the two were synonymous. It enjoyed its greatest popularity in the Roman world.
Pliny the Elder derives the Latin word garum from the Greek γαρός (garos), maybe a type of fish, and states that it was crafted e from fish intestines, with salt, creating a liquor, the garum, and a sediment named (h)allec or allex. A concentrated garum evaporated down to a thick paste with salt crystals was called muria – packed with protein, amino acids, minerals and B vitamins, so not far off today’s soy sauce.
After the liquid was ladled off of the top of the mixture, the remains of the fish, called allec, was used by the poorest classes to flavour their farinata or porridge.
The finished product—the nobile garum of Martial’s epigram—was apparently mild and subtle in flavor. The best garum fetched extraordinarily high prices, and salt could be substituted for a simpler dish. Garum appears in many recipes featured in the Roman cookbook Apicius. For example, Apicius (8.6.2–3) gives a recipe for lamb stew, calling for the meat to be cooked with onion and coriander, pepper, lovage, cumin, liquamen, oil, and wine, then thickened with flour.
And so to Colatura d’alici. I hastened to purchase a vial of this intense stuff (it translates fetchingly as anchovy drippings) after one of my favourite chefs, Jeremy Lee of Soho’s legendary Quo Vadis recommended it in Observer Food Monthly.
He wrote: “Alici is the essence of anchovy and it’s a very precious condiment. It comes in a very small bottle, like a bottle of perfume. It’s not cheap, but it’s relatively easy to get, and a little goes a long way. It’s never gone off – well, not that it lasts long enough to find out. I get it from Andy Harris at the Vinegar Shed (£26.50) and use it sparingly. It’s an elegant variation on using Worcestershire sauce in something, but it’s not so overwhelming. There’s a softness to it that’s amazing, it adds a roundness. You just need a few drops.
“It’s extraordinary in braised lamb and hogget dishes – lamb and anchovy is such a fabulous combination. Pork too. I add the alici to porchetta tonnato as a final flourish, much as you would add a squeeze of lemon juice. I find the combination of alici and lemon juice incredible in all sorts of dishes. It’s an extraordinary ingredient and one I cherish.”
Like traditionally made Southeast Asian-style fish sauce, but with a much longer ageing process, colatura is concocted with just anchovies and sea salt. For colatura anchovy fillets and salt are layered in wooden barrels (chestnut is good) and then set them aside in a temperature-controlled environment to ferment for up to three years. The liquid exuded ages into colatura, which is surprisingly unfishy. Still a health warning – this is mega pungent. But worth it.