Thursday, August 23, 2012

Alecsize that Fish!

I was greatly intrigued by the following statement, which I came across recently, on the methods used by ‘the Ancients’ to serve fish:

“The modes of dressing so approved a fish were endless. One way was to alecize or halecize it.”
Prose halieutics: or, Ancient and modern fish tattle (1854) C. D. Badham

Alecize? I had to hie me off to the Oxford English Dictionary for advice on the meaning of this word:

Alecize: Etymology:  < Latin ālec + -ize suffix. Compare Latin ālēcātus.
To dress with alec sauce.

As the sole supporting reference for the usage of this word the above quotation was given, which did not help at all.  As there was no further discussion of the word, and in particular no clarification of the Latin word ālēcātus, I was none the wiser.  

I went back to the author of Prose Halieutics and found that the author gave an opinion on the sauce and its origins:

'Apicius,' says Pliny, ' not content with the invention of a garum to drown this fish in, went about to provoke men to devise a certain broth, made from it, like that sauce called alec, which cometh of fishes when they corrupt.' Mullets are too hard to take salt well, but make an excellent souse; the modern Venetians prepare it in this manner, keeping the flesh soaking some time in a pickle of capsicum vinegar, before preparing it for the table.

Still wishing to pursue the notion of ‘alec sauce’, I think I came a step closer with a definition frm
A new English dictionary on historical principles : founded mainly on the materials collected by the Philological Society (1888)

Halec, Halecize, var. ALEC, ALECIZE.
Halecoid, a. and sb. Ichth. [f. mod.L. Halecoides, f. halec, alec, sauce prepared  from small fish, and perh. the fish itself:.]
a. adj. Of or belonging to the herring family,
b. sb. A clupeoid fish.

Other sources suggest it was a ‘form of garum’ or ‘thickened form of garum.’ Oddly, perhaps, I have been unable to find any recipes for ‘alec sauce’ – although this may well be due to my poor linguist skills. Maybe one of you with knowledge of Latin, or ancient cookery, can help?

In the meanwhile, I give you several ideas for salty, fishy, sauces, from How to Cook Fish (1908) BY Myrtle Reed.

Stir two tablespoonfuls of anchovy essence into one cupful of melted butter. Season with cayenne and powdered mace.

Pound three anchovies smooth with three tablespoonfuls of butter, add two teaspoonfuls of vinegar and a quarter of a cupful of water. Bring to the boil and thicken with a tablespoonful of flour rubbed smooth in a little cold water. Strain through a sieve and serve hot.

Add a tablespoonful of anchovy paste to a cupful of Drawn- Butter Sauce and season with lemon-juice and paprika.

Quotation for the Day.

He is no true fisherman who is willing to fish only when fish are biting.
Grover Cleveland (attrib.)


Dale said...

This web page thinks it was a paste, the dregs from making garum:

Don Pontious said...

From a Ancient Warriors (Roman Reenacting) forum discussion:

I believe I have found a modern source for the fermented Roman fish paste, alec, or better known as that putrid byproduct of making garum.

In a local Asian grocery store I found a bottle of an ugly brown paste "mam nem" which was labeled in English "fish sauce" and in French "poisson fermentee" or "fermented fish" This bottle was right next to the "nuoc mam" (note the repeated "mam"), which is the Vietnamese equivalent of garum. Both had only 3 ingredients: anchovies, salt, and water.

I called a Vietnamese friend of mine who confirmed that she believed it was the leftovers after making nuoc mam (garum).

I have tried nuoc mam (garum) and like it very much. I was convinced I had found alec, and had to try it.

I tried it over rice.
I shall not try it again.

ps. My friend did tell me that I should have tried cooking with it, rather than eating as a condiment. But I had thought I read the Romans used it as a condiment.