by: Geoff Ficke

How Modern Gastronomy Has Been Influenced by The Commercialization of Ancient Condiments

Several years ago I had the good fortune to re-visit the ruins at Pompeii near Naples, Italy with my family. I had been to the ancient site some 30 years before, but the excavation of the volcano shrouded city had progressed a great deal in the interim and there was much that had not yet been discovered on my earlier visit. Our very informative guide advised us that archaeological work and discoveries would be ongoing for many decades still.

Pompeii is stunning in its preservation and the exactitude with which the life of the age is still represented. Inns, restaurants, merchant’s homes, apartment buildings, public houses and baths, brothels and a wide variety of commercial shops and markets are clearly defined and on view. The countless ways people worked, played and interacted, even more than 2000 years ago is amazingly similar to way society organizes itself to this day. Food and drink; production, distribution and consumption was especially interesting.

One of the most fascinating bits of information that one learns in visiting Pompeii is how people ate and drank on a daily basis. The prosperous class ate a diet that was heavily weighted towards rich foods and meats. Gout was common amongst these better fed citizens. The poor, less advantaged ate a more pedestrian diet of meal and a porridge-like soup.

Food is consumed for human sustenance. It is only when prosperity blooms that taste and enhancement of this life-essential fuel becomes of import. Pompeii was a center of gastronomy in the ancient world. Evidence of the variety of foodstuffs, drink, wines and fruit that sustained the population of that age is found everywhere to this very day. Excavations regularly uncover amphorae that contain consumable products that were the basis of Pompeii’s vaunted prosperity.

The discovery of a food paste called Garum is indicative of a prosperous society’s desire for not just a meal, but a tasty meal. Garum was a fish sauce of the time. It was originally created by the Greeks but the Romans perfected and greatly advanced the commercialization and popularity of Garum. This became the world’s first widely utilized, mass produced and custom flavored condiment. Recipes for different styles of Garum have been discovered in ruins. Fishing became a hugely important activity in order to supply factories with the basic raw fish stocks essential to produce this spicy condiment.

Garum was sold for prices that rival today’s top Caspian caviar’s. The richest consumers bought the finest grades of Garum principally made from the filet of fish. Poorer consumers bought the coarser grades produced from innards and tails.

Every dinner table in Pompeii was said to have a container of one or more types of Garum at hand. Fortunes were made in the trade of this spicy fish sauce condiment. It was consumed at every meal in order to enhance flavor, intensity and to embellish foods.

When the Roman Empire declined, and then fell in the 4th Century A.D., a great darkness settled on the vast empire. As prosperity declined, and food again became a mere fuel for existence, the concept of flavor enhancement was lost. Garum disappeared from peoples diets.

The next great civilization to improve the taste of a bland diet was the Arabs. They discovered and enjoyed a condiment called tahini. Later the Indians blessed the dinner table with chutney. The British, so successful as travelers, traders and conquerors, brought back the spices that became Worcestershire sauce. The French perfected the many variants of mustard. In the 19th century, Americans gifted the world with tomato ketchup.

Today we live in a time of plenty. Even the poorest family in a developed country has a selection of condiments in the home. Fine restaurants pride themselves in offering “house secret” dressings, marinates, sauces and flavor enhancers. Amazingly, brand new condiments and variants of existing condiments are ubiquitous on super market shelves and news varieties arrive constantly. As international travel has become democratized the spread and popularity of the condiments that we discover in our journeys has accelerated.

The result is that we enjoy an explosion of variety in dressing and elevating even the most mundane plate of food. Eating is now a hobby for many, a pursuit of luxury and heightened sensual experience for some. The addition and consumption of this galaxy of condiments has created not only the platform for blissful taste experience, but amazing commercial opportunities. Condiments and naturally occurring food additives are grown, harvested, processed, marketed, packaged and transported from all corners of the planet to our corner stores and offered at amazingly affordable prices.

The business activity this trade has created is stupefying. Just as Garum was one of the major cornerstones of trade and enjoyment in the ancient world, so too today are condiments integral to our modern quality of life. We could survive without spicy mustard, or mayonnaise. Why would anyone want to!

Author's Bio: 

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. ( has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.