Many of us enjoy visiting food markets when we are on holiday or travelling. The best account I have read of what appeals to us about markets is by US chef and food writer James Beard in his book, Delights and Pleasures. But I also take great pleasure in visiting small, local grocery stores when I am on holiday, especially in more rural areas or in less prosperous parts of cities. The smell of side-street grocery stores the world over is a mixture of washing powder plus local food staples and in some regions, one dominant staple turns this into a signature whiff. Nowhere is this more true than in Portugal, where off-white, crusty boards of bacalhao – dried salt cod – are often stacked high on open shelves.
I’m not sure if it would be right to call it a “national dish” but when I asked a Portuguese colleague recently what is typical of her nation’s cooking, she grinned and gasped “bacalhao!” in a mixture of weary groan and dreamy fondness, rolling her eyes to the heavens. The Portugeuse have an unimaginable repertoire of salt cod dishes. Cod, salted and/or dried in varying degrees, is a common produce across many regions from Scandinavia, through Italy, Spain, Portugal, southern France, to the Caribbean (Ackee and salt fish!) and Alaska and probably other places besides. Naturally, it has its origins in northern climates as a way to preserve fish when catches were good and as winter protein. There aren’t many cod in the Med, but preservation helps food to travel and to survive in hotter climates as an exotic delicacy. It is telling that in Portuguese, cod in its unpreserved form must be distinguished as “bacalhao fresco”. In Italy, salt cod may have originally been an import via Portugal but there is also a story of a Venetian shipwreck at Lofoton island, off Norway, where the nobleman Piero Querini and his crew were so enamoured of the local dried cod that they returned it to Venice as a delicacy. There are regional confusions in Italy of the terms baccala and stoccafisso meaning variously salted or dried cod. On a recent trip to Venice I tasted Baccala Mantecato di Venezia, a dish of creamed cod similar to Provencal brandade and effectively mayonnaise made with fish instead of eggs. Two fluffy, pearlescent dollops arrived with toasts and a slice of lemon – a fatty, fibrous texture like rillettes, with the distinctive salt-cod taste, so familiar from Spanish croquetas. I have been desperate to try it again ever since, intrigued by trying to reproduce it, with a fillet of salt cod sitting in the fridge waiting for its chance! I am not sure whether Venetians most normally use salt cod or stockfish for this dish – perhaps someone will set me straight? – but it seems to have worked fine. What was satisfying about making this dish was that the dynamic was similar to beating egg white or cream but in reverse: you pummel and beat away at it for about half an hour, and only when it is broken down enough and loosened with enough oil and water does it get loose enough to whip air into it and it suddenly jumps into its final form.
Where else in the world is preserved cod a delicacy or staple and what do they do with it?