Food Discoveries at Masada

Yigal Yadin led the archaeological excavations at Masada, an inaccessible fortress situated on the western coast of the Dead Sea between the years 1963-1965. The archaeological evidence from Masada suggests the great richness of King Herod’s stores as described by Josephus, who emphasizes that they are a greater object of admiration than the royal palace itself:

But the stores laid up within would have excited still more amazement, alike for their lavish splendour and their durability. For here had been stored a mass of corn, amply sufficient to last for years, abundance of wine and oil, besides every variety of pulse and piles of dates.

Among the finds archaeologists found some clay shards from Roman amphorae with bilingual Latin-Greek writing, garum BασιλέωϚ ‘of the king’ – referring to Herod. As well, they found shards of wine jars datable by a fragment of inscription bearing the consular name C. Sentius Saturninus to 19BCE. The inscription on the jar indicates that the Philonianum wine from the Italian producer L. Lenius was intended for the King himself.  One should probably add to Herod’s shopping list apples from Kyme, honey and olive oil. The inscriptions not only throw light on Herod’s culinary tastes but show that Herod was able to order such luxurious imports. Herod ordered only the best garum, from Spain which the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, says was only surpassed in price by perfume and you can assume that it would have had to be kosher.

Garum was a type of fermented fish sauce that was an essential flavour and condiment in ancient Roman cooking (think of worcestershire sauce today). Although it enjoyed its greatest popularity in the Roman world, it originated with the Greeks – its name comes from the Greek words gáron (γάρον) the name of the fish whose intestines were used in the condiment’s production.

Garum was traditionally made in one of two ways. The dry-salting method involved placing layers of small whole fish or the guts of larger fish into a vat on a layer of herbs and spices (dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others) and covered with salt “two fingers high”. Repeat until the vat is full and leave for 10 days in the sun after which mix it daily for 20 days (some recipes say allow to ferment for three months). Alternatively, garum makers began with a strong salt solution (brine) into which they placed whole fish or fish intestines. The brine was heated over a fire until the liquid had reduced to an acceptable level.

If you’re interested in making up a batch of garum to taste, you can find various recipes by searching for “garum fish sauce” or check out this great Israeli food blog with a recipe for a modern version:

http://www.baronesstapuzina.com/2010/07/17/garum-roman-ketchup/

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