Antipolitani, fateor, sum filia thynni:
Essem si scombri, non tibi missa forem.
“Amphora of muria. I am the daughter of a tuna from Antipolis, I confess: if I were made with mackerel, I would not be sent to you.” (Martial, Epigrams).
Muria is a term that we frequently find in the books of the Roman agronomists, as well as in the poetic and literary sources (in particular, Martial and Horace), but also among the tituli picti inscribed on some amphorae and the lists of foods on the Vindolanda tablets.
From the sources, it is clear that there are two different products called muria: one is just brine, used to preserve foods; the other, is a fish sauce instead, used as a condiment. In the Ethymologiae by Isidore of Sevilla, we find out that muria, indeed, is also the salty liquid resulting from the preservation of fish.
There are two ways to salt foods, described by the agronomists: simplifying, the first consists in steeping them in brine; the second in cover the foods with salt, which will produce a salty liquid. This second method is the one used to preserve meat and fish.
Fish muria was used to dress foods, in the same way as garum, but in most cases, it was a cheaper product, suitable for the plebeians; sometimes, however, we find it used in the convivia. The reason why it was cheaper is simple: muria is, essentially, a by-product obtained from the process of the preservation of fish. Following, the fish was sold separately from the liquids.
The main difference between garum and muria is that the first requires a long process to allow the enzymes naturally present in the fish guts to liquefy the fish (here you can read about the method to make garum); muria, instead, is made with gutted fish, and the time necessary to obtain this sauce is shorter. After about a week, you can use your muria.
Muria is the ancient equivalent to traditional colatura di alici, in which the salted fish is put under weights for a couple of days and then filtered several times for about two or three months. The absence of fish guts produces a sauce with a flavor less sapid than garum, necessarily, being absent the enzymes that give to garum its typical complex flavor.
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The uses of muria
In Ausonius’ Epistulae (4th century) we find out that muria is very common among the plebeians, whereas the author has never tasted either muria or garum, mistaking the one for the other. It is so tasty, however, that he fills his plate with this sauce. This fact is important because muria is listed among the foods recorded in the Vindolanda tablets (written between the 1st and the 2nd centuries), an essential source of information about the diet of the Roman army.
The use of muria, clearly, was not just for the plebeians. Horace, in his Satirae, refers about a sauce, called ius duplex, which is clear a high-end recipe, made with oil, excellent wine, muria, aromatic herbs, and saffron. In another poem, the author writes that unwashed sea urchins are even better than muria, an element that allows us to know that he considers muria an excellent product.
In De Re Coquinaria, we find a couple of recipes with muria, in addition to garum (liquamen in the text) and allec; moreover, there are a few recipes with salted fish. However, it is not incorrect to substitute garum with muria, which was used in the same way, remembering that they are different. We did this for the recipes we are preparing today, seasoning both the eggs and the vegetables with muria instead of garum. We selected these plates from the cookbook attributed to Apicius and from the lists of plates we find in Martial’s Epigrams, who mentions fish (both fresh and salted) served with eggs and rue, to which we added another typical appetizer, since the author writes about vegetables served as well at the beginning of the meal, a common habit among Greeks and Romans.
We prepared the hard-boiled eggs following a recipe we used in the past with black pepper and asafoetida, substituting garum with muria, and plated them cut into slices with salted sardines, a bit of rue, and a plate of mustard greens picked in the fields. You may use any kind of edible herbs available in the Old World, depending on the season, for example nettles, borage, or poppy leaves.
Pay attention to use just a bit of muria, being the fish already salty. We suggest, in any case, steeping the fish in water for a few hours before cooking it briefly not to make it dissolve.
3,5 kg sardines
1,5 kg salt
Gut the fish and arrange it in a vase, alternating layers of fish and layers of salt. Let it rest for at least one week. Keep the fish in its muria and use it or the liquid when you need it, paying attention that the fish is always covered with the liquid.
Note about the method
To make muria, we used one of the methods described by Columella to salt meat, as written by the author, also used to preserve fish. The agronomist writes to cut the meat into one-pound pieces (caro in libraria frusta conciditur) and place them in a vase, alternating them with salt and covering with a final layer of salt. He recommends to keep it in his muria as well as salted fish (tamquam salsamentum in muria sua permanet).
The fish better suited to be salted, according to Galen, is oily one: in addition to sardines, you may choose, for example, anchovies or tuna, mentioned by Martial.
Simmer the herbs for a short time, then dress them with olive oil, vinegar, and a bit of muria.
Note about the recipe
There are two versions for this recipe: in the first, the herbs are dressed in the way that we described; in the second, they are arranged in a pan with the mentioned ingredients in addition to pepper, cumin, and lentisk berries.
Herbae rusticae. Liquamine, oleo, aceto a manu vel in patina pipere, cumino, bacis lentisci.
Rustic herbs. Garum, oil, and vinegar, or in the pan with the addition of pepper, cumin, berries of lentisk.
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Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes
Translations of Historical Sources
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Registrum Coquine (first part) by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Registrum Coquine (second part) by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Varis by Johannes Damascenus (8-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum first part (11th century)
How to make garum
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