Sunday, June 8, 2008

Fishy Business

Before I made my mark as an international fashion model, I was a poor starving albeit photogenic bear (with high cheekbones and excellent posture) just learning the ropes on the catwalks of Paris. And while I was in Paris, I learned the expression chacun à son goût which roughly translates as "everyone has their own taste" or "one man's meat is another man's poison." I used to think that this was an expression cooked up by Parisians to account for their taste in snails and frog legs but today I learned that not accounting for taste is both universal and ancient.

How so?

This morning, my bipedal attendants and I went to visit the ruins of the Roman town of Baelo Claudio, located about located 22 kilometres outside of Tarifa on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Baelo Claudio began life as a base for North African trade in the 2nd century b.c.e. but, as a processing town for garum, had its heyday during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41 - 45 c.e.). Garum was a food condiment as well as a natural cure-all (e.g., dog bites, dysentery, and ulcers) which the ancient Romans were absolutely crazy about. It was made in Baelo Claudio by the gallons, sloshed into amphorae and then shipped around the Roman world - which, bear(!) in mind was pretty large.

Garum is made from the crushed decomposing guts, heads, tails, roe and blood of fish which have been pickled in open pots under the hot sun for several weeks in brine. Often vinegar, wine and herbs are added. The highest quality - the Grey Poupon of the fish sauce world - was made from mackerel, while the Heinz ketchup variety was made from tuna. It was reputed to have a mild taste but it was so whiffy to produce that garum had to be made outside areas of human habitation. And I used to think that corned beef and cabbage smelled! (Well, it does.)

Some people have likened garum to Worcestershire sauce but I can't really comment because, as a vegetarian bear, I've never had Worcestershire sauce because it has anchovies in it. Needless to say, Bloody Mary's are not my tipple of choice.

The ruins at Baelo Claudio offer the visitor a glimpse at a typical Roman city. There is a circular city wall, a large main gate, administrative and judicial buildings (including a curia for the local senate and a basilica or courthouse), a public archive, forum, and temples to Jupiter, Juno, Minerva and to the Egyptian goddess Isis.

There are also small shops, a market place, a theatre, three aqueducts, and even public baths. After a day in the fish vats, I'd want a nice soak too. Preferably with bath salts rather than pickling salts. At the edge of the town is the "industrial park" where you can see what's left of the garum tanks, the aqueduct which serviced them, and a sewer system.

For fun, Romans liked to pit bears against other wild animals as well as gladiators - the Emperor Commodus is reputed to have murdered 100 bears by his own hand in just one day! - so I was very much relieved not to have found an arena at Baelo Claudio. If there had been - well, let's just say that as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, that would have been quite the test to my professionalism.

Of course, we weren't the only ones there today and I had to hide behind my fair share of columns to avoid being recognized. I hope the fact that I had to duck under the cordons and sprint past the prohibido pasar signs didn't annoy the guards too much - those signs and barriers certainly didn't stop a couple of tour groups from climbing over to take photos.

The ancient town lies very close to the coast of the Atlantic, and what with the seemingly unending white sand beaches & dunes, turquoise water, and perfect surfing winds, it's an amazing spot to sit and watch the kite surfers and think about life as it was 2,100 years ago. Over the years, Baelo Claudio was besieged by a tidal wave, earthquakes and even Barbary pirates, and its inhabitants finally called it a day in the 6th century c.e. But if you can find that spot away from autograph hounds (like behind a column), block out the tour guides (you can spot by them by their togas), and sit very still you can almost smell the garum. And although the French may say, chacun à son goût - this is a good place to remember that the Romans said it first, de gustibus non est disputandum. Because when in Rome ...


Anonymous said...

Hello Gray Bear
I bet you would look very cute in a toga.
Are you the only bear in your family?

Grey Bear said...

Hi Anon: I have a pair of boxer shorts and a hoodie with slots for my ears. And a fez. Since I stopped modelling I've tried to keep things simple. A toga might be nice though ...

There are many bears in our family but I'm the only grey one.