Anatomy of a talk: ‘Garum’

Sally Grainger, Aylin Öney Tan, Harold McGee, Pere Planagumà, Elvan Uysal Bottoni, Dimitra Mylona, Fatih Tutak, Yako Karayani
Batu Akyol

The first panel of the Turquazz Food Talks series, which focused on Garum, aired on May 15. Before we proceed to the details of the Turquazz Food Talks: Garum, I will tell you the story of how we decided to have a such a talk. First, I have to talk about Turquazz, a new, non-profit, cultural platform based in London, which aims to spread the culinary culture and music culture of Anatolia starting all the way from Iran to the Black Sea. I met Batu Akyol when he interviewed me for a documentary many years ago. We had this mutual interest in Garum because during this documentary, he mentioned fishermen, and especially one fisherman, Yako Karayani, who is Anatolian Greek and is still making Garos in the Prince Islands near Istanbul. I had similar information about the fishermen still making Garos.

Sally Grainger

A couple of months ago, Batu called me and told me that he is now based in London; and then we discussed the possibility of making a culinary talk, or me writing for them. Then all of a sudden, he asked me whether I heard about a new book on garum, and I said, of course, it’s Sally Grainger’s book and she’s a friend of mine. And then I told him all the stories about Sally’s talk from years back. I think it was 2010 at the Oxford Food Symposium when the theme was fermented, cured, and smoked foods. And that was the most stinky symposium ever. And I remember Sally’s presentation, how she experimented on garum in her backyard in England and all her studies on recreating garum. It’s experimental archaeology and I was very excited, and that’s the same year I also met Harold McGee, another participant of the Garum Talk.

Pere Planagumà

Things started to get exciting after having a video chat with Sally on the subject. I knew that Pere Planagumà from Spain, a two Michelin-star chef, had launched a new Garum called ESCATA, which can be called the modern Garum. I asked him whether he could join us, and he said he would be delighted to. That was my dream come true; the chef, the cook, the historian, and the archaeologist were all there. But we still had a missing ingredient, and that was the science.

Harold McGee

I had the courage to call Harold McGee again – with some support from Pere Planagumà because I knew that they know each other. I saw a note on Pere’s instagram addressed from Harold McGee to Pere saying, “To the master of modern garum”. Of course, Harold McGee is very busy because of his new book, “Nose Dive”, the guide to the world of smells. It has just been released and everybody’s after him. However, to our delight, he agreed to join us.

Dimitra Mylona

In the meanwhile, Sally contacted and brought in Dimitra Mylona from Crete. We were all very happy to meet her because she’d conducted a research on the Garum of the period up until now, the contemporary times. Her research focused on cured fish and fermented fish, especially in the Aegean Sea and towards the Bosporus and Scutari, which is known now as Üsküdar. Her contribution was very valuable. 

Elvan Uysal Bottoni

We also invited Elvan Uysal Bottoni to bring in the Italian angle. Elvan Uysal is a Turkish writer who is based in Rome, and she’s also an olive oil and honey taster. We had a meeting together, and as soon as we had it, the very next day she went to the Amalfi coast, to Cetara to find out everything about Colatura di Alici, an Italian fish sauce.

This is how we got to have many angles on the subject. First, Sally made a concise presentation on her book, “The Story of Garum”, which was the starting point of this multidisciplinary panel. She was followed by Dimitra, who took over from where Sally left off, bringing garum to contemporary times. Harold then explained the science of Garum to us; what happens in fermented fish and fish sauces and the taste profile, the smell, and everything else you want to know about the science. His contribution was followed by Pere, who told us his own story and how he got interested in Garum while bringing the Michelin-star chef angle to it. He talked about where and how he makes his Garum, his products, and how he uses these in his cuisine. He also focused on the zero-waste angle and the Spanish approach, because a museum fully dedicated to Garum opened last year in 2020 in Cadiz. Elvan then talked about the Italian angle and Colatura di Alici. We also had a guest speaker, Fatih Tutak, a celebrated chef in Turkey who rose to fame in Bangkok and then moved back to Istanbul. He experiments with and uses Garum often in his dishes.

Aylin Öney Tan

I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Aylin Öney Tan. I’m a food writer based in Istanbul and Ankara. I used to be a long-time symposiast in the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery for a long time, and that’s how I know Sally Grainger and Harold McGee. My real profession is architecture and conservation, and I try to combine my design and history background with gastronomy.

I’d like to mention a quote in Sally’s book from Robert Curtis, the author of “Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica”. He’s one of the researchers of the Pompeii Food and Drink Project. He once said, as Sally writes in her book, “Understanding fish sauce terminology is like pinning jelly on the wall.” When you finally think that you understand the basic terms, what Garum is, what Liquamen is, and what Garos is; all of a sudden everything changes. 

Yako Karayani

When it comes to the contemporary times from the Byzantine era, things get a little bit more complicated. So could the Garos of today could be the colatura of Italy? Is it Garum or not? We had to ask Harold McGee about what chemically happens with the protein enzymes, whether you have the viscera, or what really happens in this questionable looking, strong-smelling fish sauce. The way Harold described the smells was very attractive. He described anchovies smelling of cocoa, potato, geranium and melon, beef fat, and with similar terms in his book “Nose Dive” and this is very appealing. So what happens with the smell – and Sally says that when you are recreating the garum, it doesn’t smell that bad at all – is like an oxymoron; it’s something rotten, but it’s delicious.

In this transformation, salt content is also very important. The first time Sally and Pere met, the first ever question Sally asked him was about the salt content Pere uses in his own product. Pere’s contribution at this point was very valuable. He mentioned how he started experimenting with Garum and tackled the issue of zero-waste; talking about how many fisheries are making tinned fish and that all the viscera and the blood and the fish bones go to waste during this process of making tinned fish. This implies that Garum could possibly be the perfect by-product that can be even more valuable than the other product itself.

Fatih Tutak

Our final guest was Fatih Tutak who has worked with Asian sauces and their use in various Asian cultures as a celebrated chef who has worked all over from Tokyo to Bangkok. Now, he’s back in Turkey, and he’s experimenting and doing lots of his own Garum. 

We embarked on a journey starting with Grainger’s book but the chemistry between fish and salt brought this amazing group together.

The e-book of the Garum talk is free for Turquazz members to download here.

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