December 12th, 2012
No trip to Barcelona is complete without a visit to the Brandada Lady, who sells salt cod in the Boqueria. There are lots of salt cod (bacalao) stalls in the market, but this lady is always very cheerful and her fish is very good.
Salting fish to preserve it dates as far back as the Vikings and Phoenicians. Cod in particular was plentiful in the Atlantic and could be gutted and salted on board ship, before being dried on wooden frames when the fishermen returned home. Bacalao can be kept for several years in its dry form.
Having been introduced to Spain by the Basques in the 16th century, bacalao became a staple food, since in those days cod was cheap and stocks were vast. Fishermen and shepherds alike could carry big pieces of the dried fish with them, which could be reconstituted in water when needed. Bacalao became so common that it was often referred to as “poor man’s fish”. Today, it would seem, that a considerable amount of salt cod comes from Iceland and Norway, rather than being produced in Spain.
To cook with bacalao, it must be soaked in water, generally for 24 hours, with about 3 changes of water to remove the salt. Thick pieces can take 36 – 48 hours. Here you can see salt cod soaking on the bacalao stall – you can buy it dry or ready to cook.
Sadly with the collapse in cod stocks in recent years, the price of bacalao has rocketed, it’s become an expensive luxury food instead of a staple. However, it’s such an important part of Spanish food culture, that it’s still quite popular in spite of the price.
I particularly went to buy some brandada – a coarse purée of reconstituted salt cod, garlic and olive oil (some recipes call for boiled, riced potatoes too). It’s delicious served on fresh bread or toast. I believe that Oli named the Brandada Lady after her exceptionally high quality brandada!
I also bought a little piece of mojama to take home. Mojama is tuna loin, salted for 2 or 3 days and then washed before air drying in the sunshine. This style of drying tuna dates back to the Phoenicians, but the name mojama comes from the Arabic musama, to dry.
Mojama is served, sliced very thin, on a piece of bread with a drizzle of olive oil. The taste and texture is a bit like a cross between ham and tuna. It’s reassuringly expensive at 45€ per kilo!