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 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 and it is said that the procedure was given 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 they 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), the 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.
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!
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 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).
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.
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.