Bacalao a la Llauna

la boqueria

On my last visit to Barcelona, I went to the Boqueria to buy some bacalao from the Brandada Lady. They are almost exclusively ladies in the fish part of the market – perhaps in the old days the husbands caught the fish and the wives sold them. These ladies can be quite a fearsome bunch, taking no nonsense from tourists, but at the same time flirting outrageously to get you to buy their fish and not that of the stall next door.

cod fish

Cod cured in salt and will literally keep for years, perhaps even decades without spoiling. The technique of curing by air drying cod dates back to the Vikings, who it is said, gave the procedure to the Basques, along with directions to the Grand Banks off North America, where the sea was literally full of cod (one could practically dip a hand in the ocean and pull out a fish). Unlike Norsemen, the Basques had salt and perfected the art of salting, so perhaps there was some trade off. According to Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (by Mark Kurlansky), Basque fishermen were sailing across the Atlantic for 500 years before Columbus discovered America. It is said that the Basques kept their fishing grounds a secret and others who tried to follow them foundered on the way. Regardless, salt cod became an essential cheap staple (along with cured meat and sausage), in the centuries before refrigeration – all long journeys and voyages depended on food that would keep for the duration.

shrink wrapped

Normally, one buys salt cod dry or rehydrated from a bacalao stall in the market. If you want cod for supper, the Bacalao Ladies will have some ready soaked – they have fantastic old marble sinks a bit like those used to wash photographic prints. If one is buying salt cod to cook at a later date or for a journey, traditionally it’s wrapped in wax paper, but these days, if you ask nicely in Spanish, you can have it shrink wrapped. Strictly speaking, shrink wrapping isn’t necessary, flies and germs won’t go near salted fish, but the bacalao is smelly and in a constant state of repelling any remaining moisture. I did consider sending myself bacalao by post, unwrapped, to see how well it lasted (knowing full well that it would probably be fine), but the Spanish Correos (Post Office) objected. In fact they even refused to accept shrunk wrapped bacalao with an address label on it, stating that it must be wrapped in brown paper – “Why I asked,” but all I got in response was a lecture about rules and regulations. After that rebuttal, I put the salt cod in my suitcase – no problem with customs!

en el frigo

On arriving home, I wasn’t entirely sure about keeping bacalao in plastic – normally it’s supposed to be hung up in the larder. I consulted La Chica Andaluza who said, quite rightly, that salt cod will sweat and go bad in plastic. Her recommendation was to rehydrate it and freeze it until needed.  The main reason for not having it hanging from a hook in the kitchen is the very strong fish smell. So, to rehydrate bacalao, it needs to be soaked in cold water for between 48 and 72 hours. I put mine in a glass bowl and changed the water every 12 hours or so. The preferred method of testing codfish to see if enough salt has been removed in washing, is to break off a little peace and taste it. Fear not, all germs have been banish from salted cod.

I came across a couple of novel rehydration methods for cured codfish in the Cod book:

“Deep inland in France, La France profonde, as the French like to say, on the far side of the mountain range called the Massif Central, is the Aveyron. It is a rugged region of high green sheep pastures, deep gorges, and jagged rock outcrop-pings, the most famous of which, in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, provides the natural caves for aging the world’s most famous cheese. An isolated area where shepherds still speak a local dialect, the region would get supplies all the way from distant Bordeaux on river barges. Barges would move up the Garonne to the Lot to Rodez and other towns in the Aveyron. The stockfish, bought in Bordeaux and dragged in the river behind the barge for the two-day voyage, would be soft and ready for cooking when it arrived.

In the twentieth century, the Lot became increasingly polluted and unnavigable, but a new invention was well suited to the preparation of stockfish: the flush toilet. In 1947, the president of the Conseil, the governing body of France, asked his valet to flush the toilet once an hour for the next week in preparation for a special dinner he was preparing on Sunday. The dish was stockfish. The toilet was fed by a water tank mounted high up on the wall, the chasse d‘eau. A stockfish left in the chasse d’eau for two days was soft and ready for cooking. The system was also ideal for salted fish, since the water was easy to change. All of this may be deemed unaesthetic, but, unfortunately, it is now more hygienic than using the Garonne and its tributaries.”

I think I’d prefer it flushed to dragged up river by a barge.

My Basque friend Amaia does sometimes have bacalao hanging in her kitchen and she likes to break off little pieces to gnaw on. My salt cod did sit in the freezer for a couple of months, but finally I got round to making my favourite Catalan bacalao recipe this week.

bacallà a la llauna

Bacallà a la Llauna recipe (per person):

250 – 500g piece of salt cod (rehydrated)
6 large pieces of garlic (3 sliced and 3 chopped)
1 heaped teaspoon dulce (sweet) pimentón de la Vera
plain flour for dusting
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
1 large glass of dry vermouth or white wine
lots of Spanish extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper (to taste)

Bacallà (bacalao) a la Llauna is specific to Cataluña and means salt cod on the tin, as in cooked on a tin tray or tin receptacle. This simple recipe is something that would have been cooked at home and out in the fields, probably in a large tin vessel or pot. I love this dish – when I arrive in Barcelona I always want to visit Romesco (on my first night), where the delicious smell of cod and garlic hits you as you walk trough the door. Can Vilaró, also does a very good bacalao a la llauna with beans. I’ve looked at a least a dozen or so traditional recipes, most of which are the same as mine. A few people add grated tomato or chopped red pepper with the garlic. It’s common to serve this with boiled potatoes or mongetes – a small white haricot bean, cooked in the tray along with the cod.


Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a frying pan – it’s an ingredient and not just a cooking medium. Dust the salt cod lightly with plain flour and fry it skin side down, when the oil is nearly smoking.


Lightly brown the codfish all over, remove to a tin tray and set aside. Any oven proof cooking dish will do – glass, terracotta, metal, etc. Heat the oven to about 180ºC while you cook the garlic.


Fry the sliced garlic in the hot olive oil until it starts to go golden brown.


When the garlic is cooked, sprinkle on a heaped teaspoonful of sweet Pimentón de la Vera and stir.


Pour in the wine – I used half dry white wine and half dry vermouth. Add a heaped spoonful of parsley as the wine bubbles. Do let the alcohol burn off for a couple of minutes, but don’t let the liquid reduce too much. Season with salt and pepper (to taste).

para el horno

Pour the wine and pimentón sauce over the bacalao and scatter the chopped, uncooked garlic on top. Place in a preheated oven at 180ºC for about 15 minutes. If adding white beans they would go in now.

bacalao a la llauna

I ate my salt cod with a boiled potatoes and green beans, a little chopped parsley garnish on the bacalao finished it off. I ejoyed a glass of Muscadet-Sèvre et Main with mine.

You can buy bacalao in Britain from a reputable fishmonger or Spanish and Portuguese shops. You won’t have any trouble finding it in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Fresh cod could be substituted, the main difference being that having been salted, bacalao is preseasoned and has firmer flesh.

N.B. The introduction of cod in batter (for fish and chips) to Britain, by Jews fleeing persecution from the Inquisition, would have been salt cod in a tempura batter, tempura having been created in Iberia, was originally taken to Japan by Jesuit missionaries.

The popular Caribbean akee and salt fish, started off as cheap salt cod from the Grand Banks, but since this fishing ground has been depleted and cod prices have gone through the roof, the aquatic ingredient has been replace with cheaper salted white fish.

About Mad Dog
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23 Responses to Bacalao a la Llauna

  1. Though I kind of like the image of a barge chugging up the river or whatever with its salted cod in tow. I love the research that went into this. Fish and Chips fried in batter! Be still me beating heart. I am also looking forward to starting my first vermouth this winter. Winter seems the season to make grog. have a good one! So I will have another quick click on that link as a refesher.. Thank you.. c

    • Mad Dog says:

      Me too! Before factories and combustion engines, I’m sure that many rivers were clean and of course people caught fish in them. Not so much pollution with horses and they make fertiliser!
      Good luck with the vermouth – I’m sure you will produce something spectacular for Christmas!

  2. This post is amazing. The research and history is fantastic. As a former fish monger I spent a lot of time dehydrating salt cod for the Italians on Christmas. All year we had it just lining shelves and cabinets lunge cardboard. Then a week in advance we filled huge plastic garbage cans with water using a hose and got to rehydrating. We changed the water often. The cod was delicious. I find it hilarious that you tried to mail yourself dried cod. My sister’s mother in law usually packs her suitcase full of cheeses when she comes from overseas. Similar idea I guess. I also love the idea that the fisherman “discovered” America long before Columbus. I completely believe it. And this recipe!! I can only imagine how delicious this is. Wonderful, MD!

    • Mad Dog says:

      Thanks Amanda – reading the book helped! There are historic remains of Basque fishing huts and drying equipment along the coast – they came for the summer, caught as much as possible, dried the cod on the beach and brought it home to sell at the end of the season.
      Apparently when the salt cod gets really old and dry (like wood), they beat it with a hammer for an hour before rehydrating! Amazingly, I’ve never had a problem with food in my suitcase – customs officers seem to think that piglets, trotters, snails, fish, cheese, chorizo, vermut and brandy are quite normal!
      There’s definitely a job waiting for you in Spain 😉

  3. Eha says:

    Mad, this truly is the best all-round lesson in bacalao I have ever read, it will be reread and then filed. Even tho’ the two food items I most dislike are IT and the fruit durian 🙂 ! The recipe is great so as a wuss shall try it with ‘ordinary’ cod and hope I know how to season and keep it together! I do wonder how the Spanish pronounce ‘Llauna’ – have just come from Francesca’s marvellous ‘Almost Italian’: she has been travelling around Wales of the impossible-to-pronounce-but-musical language at the moment and actually has a video teaching us the secret of ‘LL’, one poor reader spitting his dentures out whilst attempting the deed 🙂 !

    • Mad Dog says:

      Thanks Eha – I’ve been writing it in my head for several days. I think you could produce a fairly similar dish with fresh cod.
      There is a slight difference between a Spanish LL and a Catalan LL but both are close to a Y sound. It’s the Catalan word for tin and to my ear it sounds very much like yaw-nah 🙂

  4. Hi Craig

    Just enjoying your post on cod this morning.

    There’s a typo in the para about the Post Office (v funny read) btw.

    in fact they even reused = refused.

    Great post – chock fill with interesting fishy titbits.

    Hope you’re well.

    When/where are we going to meet up for lunch one day??



    • Mad Dog says:

      Thanks Sue – it doesn’t matter how many times you proof read it, there’s always something that slips through! I’m glad you liked it 🙂

  5. Nadia says:

    What an interesting post. I have eaten salt cod many different ways and love it. Will definitely give this one a try.

    • Mad Dog says:

      Thanks Nadia – yes it’s quite popular in France, especially in brandade, which is absolutely delicious. I recommend this recipe, it does capture a little piece of Barcelona for me 🙂

  6. What a beautiful recipe. Big Man would love this as he’s a huge fan of bacalao! Glad the de salting and freezing worked well for you too. It is a bit pongy otherwise 😀

  7. I’ve never worked with salt cod, but I think some day I will. Have to say, your story of trying to mail some salt cod home was quite amusing … I imagine the postal workers are still talking about that! Although, like you, I fail to see what difference a paper wrapping would have made!

    • Mad Dog says:

      Thanks Marlene. I would have liked to send the bacalao unwrapped – perhaps with a label tied through a hole in the corner. Most salt cod in Spain comes from Norway these days and traditionally it’s transported unwrapped. Cured fish and meat keeps much better when the air can get to it. However, I knew that wouldn’t wash with the post office, though I bet it would have been normal 50 years ago. Next time I might check the weight, buy the correct amount of stamps and just put a shrink wrapped piece of cod in the post box and see what happens…
      Do try cooking salt cod – it’s firmer than fresh and therefore more resilient in the pot.

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