Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A History of Bacalhau: A Portuguese Staple

The greatest delicacy and triumph of the Portuguese cuisine is bacalhau (codfish), which is costlier than turkey, game or the best of beef.”
--Indianapolis Journal, December 24, 1899

Last week, after my plane landed in Porto, I was taken to lunch and there was bacalhau, salt cod, on the menu. During the rest of the week, bacalhau featured on a number of other menus as well. It is a ubiquitous and iconic Portuguese food, commonly referred to as fiel amigo, their "faithful friend." Other European countries enjoy salt cod too, such as France where it is called morue, Italy where it is known as baccalà, and in Spain where it is called bacalao salado. However, none of those countries have made salt cod such an integral element of their cuisine as in Portugal.

How did salt cod become so significant to the Portuguese?

Drying meat and seafood may be the oldest known form of food preservation, extending back about 100,000 years. Around the 8th century, the Vikings are known to have hung fish, which eventually included cod, out in the cold, drying it, and it became known as stockfish, which they would eventually export too. It appears that sometime by the late 10th century, Vikings explored the waters around Newfoundland, harvesting the plentiful cod in those waters and transforming it into stockfish.

This stockfish was light, easily transported aboard a ship, and nutritious, so much that a kilo of stockfish was thought to be as nutritious as five kilos of fresh cod. It was so well preserved that it had a shelf life of at least five years. Without stockfish, the Vikings probably couldn't have travelled as much, or as easily, as they did by sea.

At some point, and there is a large debate as to the timing, Basque fishermen, from the Pais Vasco in Spain, traveled to the waters off Newfoundland and began a lengthy period of cod fishing, jealously guarding the locations of these rich waters. It is believed that they were the first not only to dry cod, but also to salt them for preservation. The Basque then sold this salt cod to numerous European nations, including Portugal, which seemed to have whet their appetite for salt cod.

Though the Portuguese probably fished for cod themselves by at least the beginning of the 14th century, the first documentation of this activity was in 1353 when Portugal made a treaty with England, establishing the right of Portuguese fishermen to fish in the waters of England for a period of 50 years. Cod could be caught in the North Sea, but primarily on the coast. In exchange for these fishing rights, Portugal provided wine to England, the first documented shipment of wine between the two countries, a trade that eventually led to the creation of Port wine.

Previous to this time, the principal fish caught and sold in western Europe were herring and freshwater fish, with herring being quite a prolific fish. Around the 10th century, herring fishermen, especially in the Baltic region, learned how to preserve herring by salting it in brine-filled barrels. There barrels were transported across Europe and were especially popular in England, where Victorians referred to herrings as “silver darlings.” Herring became popular with both the poor and wealthy, and were a primary staple of armies that warred during these centuries.

However unlike stockfish, herring couldn’t be wind dried with similar results because herrings have an oily flesh that spoils quickly. Herring had to be immediately gutted and then placed between layers of salt and then repackaged in barrels of brine. This cured herring though wasn't particularly tasty and consumers had to work hard to make it edible. The early 14th century was especially bountiful for herring but the latter half of the century saw a mysterious decline, with a minor rebound in the early 15th century and then another significant decline.

With these serious problems in the herring industry, fishermen were seeking an alternative and salt cod offered a solution. The Basque were finally unable to hide the secret of the fishing grounds in Newfoundland, and by 1472, Portugal possessed maps of Newfoundland, referred to it as Terra dos Bacalhaus, “the Land of Cod.” Portuguese fishermen began to harvest cod in the waters of Newfoundland, and it is thought that by 1508, 10% of the seafood brought into their ports was salt cod.

Basque fishermen might have been the first to salt cod for transport, but others soon copied this method. Salting worked much better for cod rather than herring as cod isn't an oily fish, and much of its oil is connected in the guts. By the middle of the 16th century, about 60% of the fish consumed in Europe was cod, an astounding figure that would remain largely unchanged for a couple hundred years. Most of the remaining 40% was taken up by herring.

When Spain seized control of Portugal in 1580, its fishing industry suffered and Portugal had to trade for the salt cod it desired. Even when Portugal regained its independence in 1640, they still found it most reasonable to trade for salt cod rather than attempt to fish for it themselves. As Portugal possessed significant stocks of salt, especially from Setubal and Aveiro, it could trade this resource,  allowing others, primarily England, the ability to make salt cod. By 1620, England was exporting 90% of the salt cod they harvested, selling most of it to Portugal, Spain and some Mediterranean countries.

Cod fishing was an incredibly valuable industry, and it is claimed that from the 16th to the middle of the 20th century, the cod fisheries of Newfoundland generated greater wealth in Europe than the total amount of gold taken from the Americas. The documentation during this period commonly compared cod to gold, noting its vital importance.

If cod were less common, it would be held in as high esteem as salmon; for, when it is really fresh and of good quality, the delicacy and delicious flavor of its flesh admit of its ranking among the finest of fish.”
--Chef Auguste Escoffier

The popularity of salt cod was significantly tied to the spread of Christianity. For early Christians, Friday was considered holy, a day of atonement for the death of Jesus, and Christians were supposed to abstain from consuming meat. Soon enough, Lent also became a holy time of abstinence. It was believed that meat provoked carnal lust, so it was inappropriate on holy days. On the other hand, fish was considered to have a cold nature, decreasing lust.

Until about 1000, most people met their fasting obligations by eating freshwater fish, especially eels. By the 12th century, most of the fish they consumed was dried, salted, or smoked, and herring was a major component. Fresh fish was too expensive for most people and it was difficult to transport it to many areas. As Christianity spread, the number of holy days increased too. By the 13th century, holy days of fasting from meat occupied more than half the year.

As Portugal was largely a Christian nation, they ate plenty of fish during the year on holy days and salt cod became their fish of choice, especially as there were so many ways it could be prepared. And when you have to eat fish so often, more than half of the year, you want a versatile fish so you can vary your menu. Herring wasn't a versatile fish and many people disliked its taste. On the other hand, there is a common adage that there is a different recipe for salt cod for every day of the year. In reality, there are probably enough different recipes for every day of three years! There are Portuguese institutions which have gathered together over 1000 recipes for using salt cod.

Besides the religious reasons, fish was also quite important for armies, especially something like salt cod which could be easily transported, wouldn’t spoil, and possessed lots of protein. And during the centuries of incessant warfare, salt cod became vitally important to many nations. Their navies, merchants, and sailors also had a need for a similar type of food, and salt cod fit that role. Though the religious reasons for salt cod are receive the most attention, we cannot forget these other significant reasons for salt cod consumption.

An old Portuguese adage states that ‘Salt cod wants garlic’.”
--Taste of Portugal: A Voyage of Gastronomic Discovery Combined with Recipes, History and Folklore by Edite Vieira

The Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, has very little fat and contains more than 18% protein. Fattier fish are more resistant to salt, and take much longer to preserve, meaning the flesh could deteriorate before the preservation was complet, When cod is dried and salted, much of the water in its flesh evaporates and chemical changes occur. Salt cod becomes more than 80% protein, which made it a powerful food for warriors and seamen, and its flesh becomes chewier, milder, and almost sweet. The salt cod also contains nutritious potassium, iron and vitamins A, B and D.

Salt cod isn't used as is but needs to be soaked for approximately 24-48 hours in fresh water, with many authorities supporting the higher end of that range, before it is then boiled and simmered. If soaked properly, it is not high in salt and then you can use it in over 1000 recipes, preparing it in a myriad of methods, from grilling to frying.

While in Portugal, we enjoyed salt cod in several different preparations, with the fried/salt cod fritters seeming to be the favorite for most in our group. The broiled/baked recipes weren't as popular, though that seemed to be more due to the presence of tiny bones in parts of the fish. However, one night, our guide Ricardo gave us lessons in how to handle the bones, by starting to cut in the fish in the middle, The bones are generally located closest to the skin so starting in the middle you easily separate the bones from the rest of the fish.

These weren't my first experiences with salt cod and I loved the taste of the salt cod in all its different preparations. Locally, I've even had salt cod on a Francesinha sandwich! It was obvious to me that salt cod is still vitally important to the people of Portugal. It is no longer a dish only for holy days, but rather a staple for their table year round. Fresh cod is rare in Portugal, and they much prefer the taste of salt cod. If you travel to Portugal, you need to taste at least a few different salt cod dishes. Or learn how to prepare salt cod at home.

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