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D - 18: The Subaquatic Life of the Mediterranean

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

We are all looking forward to the delicious seafood we are going to have during our sailing holiday. Buying if directly from the fisherman off-shore or freshly just after delivery to the local markets is always a pleasure. Who does not remember the barter trade we did in 2017 with the big Greek fisherman? He wanted to be paid in beers and cigars for his catch! It was the most amazing negotiation to fix that exotic exchange rate!

Happy Fisherman – he sold us Lobsters and Mackerel for beers and cigars

How does this reconcile with my recent blogs about the culinary traditions of Liguria, Corsica and Sardinia? Almost everywhere the local cuisine is land based. Seafood is often a recent addition. Is it a recent addition?

Roman Mosaic from the Augustus period showing people fishing

Definitely not when looking at the archeological findings. Both Greeks and Romans loved having fish on their plate - we know it from their recipe books. They also used fish motives to decorate their villas and put them on tableware and trinkets. Their famous fish sauce, Garum, was the main condiment for ordinary people living in Rome. It was produced on industrial scale in Spain and Northern Africa, then shipped in amphorae to the capital where it was sold in the markets. Since made from fish parts nobody wanted to eat – intestines, bones, skin, fins, head etc. the question is obvious: who ate the edible parts? The wealthy Roman elite of course! Only wealthy people own recipe books! Industrial Garum production needed high quantities of supply. The Romans must have had a significant fishing fleet. Unfortunately, I could not find any corroborating source. If anybody comes across a paper on the subject, I am a willing taker!

From Roman cooking books we know that the fish we love today were also the fish on their menu. Sardines, Mackerels and Anchovies, which make up today about 50% of the stock, Sea Bream and Sea Bass (about 10% of stock), Tuna (about 5%), Lobsters, Shrimps and Mussels (7%) and Octopus and Squids (6%). There are 225 fish species in the Mediterranean but we do not eat most of them – who would eat a dolphin?

Fresh fish market in Greece

Romans used many fishing techniques. Spear or bait fishing were popular with individuals but bigger fishing operations were done with nets. This is where the cork from Sardinia came in handy. It was attached to the top of the net. Stones then pulled the bottom of the net to the sea floor. Surprisingly some of these nets survived in mud layers. Thus, we know.

Population Density in the Roman Empire – for comparison in Switzerland it is 219 people per square kilometer – and half of Switzerland are uninhabitable mountains

Romans fished intensively for their time but two things kept supply and demand in good balance. First the overall population density was low. Roman Italy had just 20 people per km2 compared to today’s 201people – there was ten times less demand! The second factor is equally important: Mediterranean fish is oily and not easy to preserve. Keeping them in brine goes some way but salt-drying as possible for cod does not work. In the absence of a cold chain (an invention of the late 19th century), fish could not be shipped inland. It had to be consumed on the coastline, further reducing the number of potential customers. With Garum, the fish sauce it was different though. It could be transported in amphorae on a ship, carriage or on a donkey’s back

When the Roman Empire fell apart, so did its fishing industry. The long-distance networks to distribute Garum collapsed. The Garum business could not reach its customers any longer. With the entire Mediterranean moving towards anarchy and the coastal population fleeing inland to escape the threat of pirates, the customer base shrank further. Fishing became an entirely local business with no long-range capacity.

Maltese Fishing Boats accurately illustrating the small scale fishing in the Mediterranean

Long-range fishing was re-invented somewhere outside the Mediterranean Sea. In the late Middle Ages - to satisfy the growing demand for protein on meat free Fridays - the Basque, Portuguese and Dutch ventured into the Atlantic and found Cod off Newfoundland and Herring off Iceland. Their ships were far more sturdy to survive the rough Atlantic swells and gave us the vessels the explorers used in the age of discovery to sail directly to Asia and the Americas. The Mediterranean played neither a role in the development of modern fishing nor in modern ship building – as we have seen in yesterday’s blog.

Statistics of European Fish consumption

The good balance between supply and demand in the Mediterranean is gone as well. The industrial revolution, the rapid increase in food production, the connection of our world by steam engines (ships and trains) led to a rapid increase of the world population and created a wealthy middle class which – guess what – discovered sea food and fish again. As a result, the Mediterranean is seriously overfished now and several species are close to extinction.

The EU Mediterranean countries (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece and Cyprus) consume each year 7.5 million tons of fish but only 2.7 million tons are from domestic sources - not for lack of trying but there is simply not more left. The rest is imported from Morocco and Western Africa. Chances that you eat imported fish in the Mediterranean are thus 2:1.

But we are most likely going to be lucky. The fish and seafood we find in the small harbors and bays will be local. We are too far away from the big distribution chains. I hope that there are more funny barter trades as in 2017 and am looking forward to it.

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