If Pietro Querini, navigator, merchant and, on top of that, Senator of the Serenissima (Most Serene) Republic of Venice had known what the consequences of importing cod to Venice would have been, he would had probably started his own business abandoning politics. The story of ‘bacala’ dates back to April 25th 1431, when a Venetian ship under the command of Pietro Querini, got caught in a storm and drifted in the North Sea for weeks. On January 14th of 1432 Captain Querini and a few surviving members of his crew were rescued by local fishermen and taken to the island of Roest, in the Lofoten archipelago. Here the crew remained for a few months, where they were first exposed to a stinky and long wooden stick like fish for the very first time. Soon they learned that that dry fish was cod, which could be preserved and stored for years once air dried. Salt in those days was too expensive. After the catch, the fish was immediately decapitated, gutted and hung on wooden racks lined on the foreshore. The islanders would keep it there in the dry cold Winter winds from February to the end of May, until hardened. At that point, light and stiff like a wooden stick, they would store it in piles. What an incredible discovery. Without even knowing, stockfish’s rise to fame had just started. Months later, once back in Venice and with a good supply of smelly stockfish, the Captain explained to the Venetians how the Norwegians air dried this fish, making it sound like a delicacy. Despite the beautiful introduction, the invasive pungent smell made everyone gag with disgust, thinking it was just rotten fish. The perspicacious Pietro had a ‘long eye’ and knew that that was just the beginning of a florid relationship between the Serenissima Republic of Venice and Norway. He was right. Within the years, Venetians started to cook and appreciate stockfish making Querini’s dramatic, yet serendipitous incident, the start of the cod trade in Italy. Eventually cod became the official fish eaten by Catholics. The Church ‘s loss of credibility had something to do with it. After Martin Luther’s statements that eternal life and salvation were not earned by good deeds, but were instead a free gift of God and after having shown his view on indulgences, the Church ran for cover declaring, from that day on, it would be humble and poor. Consequentially, the Catholics also had to follow certain guidelines. And cod? What did cod have to do with all this? Well, its road to stardom was about to be opened by Olao Magno, a Swedish priest stationed in Rome, who first suggested this fish to be perfect for fasting, to be eaten during Lent and on Fridays. Everybody could have had access to it as it was dried, safe and easy to be stored and traded. Do not misunderstand, the rich and those living close by sea, rivers and lakes would keep eating fresh fish, but those living in the mountains or inland and the many poor people could observe this new law and be able to eat fish. Pope Paul III, in 1545, turned cod into the Catholics’ official fish during the Concilio di Trento. The rest is history. One of the main reasons why salted cod and stockfish are largely consumed in Italy, has to do primarily with Catholicism. When Italians migrated to other continents, they brought this tradition with them. Same with the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Greeks and all those countries which had been exposed to it. I love telling this story to my students and sharing the fact that growing up, Friday was not my favorite day of the week. My grandma would cook cod every week. Different recipes obviously, but same fish. “Grandma, since we have to eat fish on Friday…is lobster even an option?” You can guess her answer.
The Big Mislead
Venetians started to use stockfish in their local cuisine. They changed its name into bacala with one C and this started the big confusion. Baccala’ is fresh cod packed in salt. Stockfish is cod that gets air dried. Baccala’ is milder in flavor, Stockfish is more intense and pungent and needs to be soaked in cold water for days in order to be reconstituted. By calling stockfish bacala’, Venetians made everyone believe that their recipes were made with either fresh or salted cod, while their recipes use stockfish instead. Still today, many Italians use cod the wrong way when trying to duplicate Venetian recipes. The results are obviously disappointing. Maybe this was done intentionally? We will never know for sure. What we know for sure is that the Venetians are not compromising now, even if they know the difference, they traditionally keep calling bacala’ what we all know is stockfish. I love their stubborness.
Did you know?
Stockfish can also be produced with Cod, the most expensive, Saithe ( pollock), Tusk, Haddock and a few other varieties of fish.
Amongst the world’s stinkiest foods…and we love it !
There is no doubt that both salted and air dried cod smell. So do many other foods like certain types of cheese, durian and even truffles. But we love them. Everything can be explained by our limbic system, but let me keep this extremely interesting subject for another blog. The drying process removes much of the water content in the fish, that is why stockfish must be re hydrated before cooking. At the same time, due to the fact that it takes a few months before the fish is completely dry, the fish matures, developing that strong smell. After soaking it for 3-4 days in cold water (35F) changing the water at least once a day, the smell gets milder and you should be able to cut the fish into portions. The soaking time varies with the tickness/size of the fish. If the stockfish has passed through rollers, soak it for 3-4 days. A whole fish will need to be soaked for 7-8 days. Stockfish has a soft consistency after the soaking process. It will also be more than double its original weight! High protein, low fat content and no salt, stockfish is perfect for every dietary requirement.
Never had cod’s tripe? Then you have never lived!
I know I know! you think you can live without it. Well, it is all about growing up with certain foods and for me, as a chef, being able to just talk about it is already success. As food writer, my mission is to make sure certain ingredients, traditions and foods are not forgotten. Cod’s tripe is often called fish maw. Why is it so hard to find? Because it is a real delicacy and rare. What is it? Cod tripes are nothing else but the swim or gas bladders filled with gasified air. They are placed in the intestine next to the backbone. This bladder is thick and has a gelatinous consistency. Not all fish have this bladder, that is why it is so prized. When I cook stockfish, I alway smake sure the fishmonger pre orders a few tripes for me. They make the difference.
Maybe not the most refined title for a recipe for sure, but this Ligurian dish is great and you should try it. Branda means to shake and cujun is a man’s lower parts. The name of the dish derives from the way the cook shakes the pan with the fish and potatoes, colliding sometimes with the family jewels.
2 lbs stockfish already soaked, rinsed and cut into thick chunks
1 1/2 lbs potatoes, peeled and cut into medium sized chunks
2 tsps freshly chopped parsley
1 large clove minced garlic
2 Tbs Taggiasca olives packed in oil
2 Tbs pine nuts ( optional)
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil to taste
Arrange the stockfish in a large pan, pour enough cold water to cover and cook over medium high heat, covered with a lid. When the water starts boiling, cook it for about 10 minutes. In a separate pot, cook the potatoes until tender, about 35 minutes. Transfer both stockfish and potatoes to a colander and drain very well. Let the mixture cool, remove fish bones and skin. In a large skillet, heat the oil and add the garlic, cooking for just a few seconds. Add the drained mixture to the pan and using a wooden spoon, mix everything until combined, adding seasonings, taggiasca olives, pine nuts, parsley and extra virgin. The result should look like a coarse puree. Cover the pan with the lid and hold it firmly while shaking it in a rotating direction to blend all the ingredients well. Repeat every 5 minutes. Cook for about 35 minutes, always checking that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Serve with a generous drizzle of extra virgin ( Taggiasca extra virgin olive oil from Liguria would be perfect) and freshly ground black pepper.
VENETIAN CREAMED BACALÀ
Traditionally paired with creamy or grilled polenta, Bacalà Mantecato and Baccalà alla Vicentina are Veneto’s most important recipes using cod. As I previously explained, the term bacalà is misleading as in Venice and Veneto in general, baccalà is actually stockfish. The success of Baccalà Mantecato depends on the olive oil used, which must be very mild and fruity, otherwise the recipe will turn bitter. Traditionally this recipe is made with a wooden spoon and not a whisk. It’s served in most every restaurant and bar, and eaten as a cicchetto (finger food).
1 lb pre-soaked stockfish, cut into large pieces
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup fruity olive oil
Freshly ground white pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add stockfish, garlic and bay leaf and simmer for
Drain fish, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking liquid. Discard bay leaf, garlic, fish skin and
bones. Place fish in a large bowl. Using a wooden spoon, break apart the flesh, adding a bit of cooking liquid. Whip the fish in an energetic circular motion in order to cream it. Start adding the olive oil in a slow and steady stream. The mixture will start getting creamier and creamier. Keep whipping until all the oil has been used. Season with salt and pepper. Serve on grilled or fried polenta or on toasted bread.