Codfish Tales and Codfish Bones: Woe is Us

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL
New Found Land (Photo credit: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL)

Glo’ster girls they have no combs,
Heave away, heave away!
They comb their hair with codfish bones,
We’re bound for South Australia.

~~ Old sea shanty ~~

Mark Dodds)
Salt Cod (Photo credit: Mark Dodds)

Bacalhau, bacalao, cabillaud (from the Dutch kabeljauw), morue (and the marvelous brandade* resulting therefrom). Gone with the waves?


A disturbing story in the December 15, 2008 New York Times — “A Portuguese Tradition Faces a Frozen Future” — suggests that salt cod will be going the way of the dodo bird. Or least TV dinners. Into the freezer, out of the salt.

Ana Campos)
Portuguese Christmas Eve Dinner (Photo credit: Ana Campos)

Author Elaine Sciolino says, “Bacalhau, as the fish is called here, is to Christmas Eve in Portugal what turkey is to Thanksgiving in America. Treasured since the 16th century, when Portuguese fishermen first brought it back from Newfoundland, it bore the nickname fiel amigo — faithful friend. Its correct preparation is a source of pride, a sign of respect for family values.”

Not only in Portugal. There’s Latin America, Italy, and even France, where salt cod played a mighty important role in the history of the world. Seafarers and sinners alike ate this white-fleshed fish by the tons, especially during the Age of Exploration. Governed as they were by the Roman Catholic Church’s meatless Fridays and oppressive Lenten restrictions, housewives throughout medieval Europe and in many of the later colonies invented tasty traditions out of what looks like cardboard soaked in the sea.

Soaking the Salted Codfish (Used with permission.)
Soaking the Salted Codfish (Used with permission.)

Sciolino provides a few words on the  preparation of this “cardboard” before it turns into something edible, and hopefully delicious: “Indeed, it is easy to work hard on bacalhau and still get it wrong. If the soaking temperature is too cold, the fibers of the fish’s flesh do not open up properly and the finished product will be too salty. If the cod is soaked too long, it will turn spongy.”

The situation is becoming so dire that SLOW FOOD ought to jump into the fray.

Sciolino documents comment after comment illustrating the concern of the older generation about the loss of this culinary tradition.  “The changing culinary habits of the Portuguese are mourned as a loss of a part of the country’s culture. ‘Frozen tastes nothing like real bacalhau, properly prepared,’ said José Bento dos Santos, a winemaker and the host of a television cooking show. ‘I doubt the next generation will know it, just as it will not know the taste of real strawberries or melons.’ ”

Sliced Bread
Sliced Bread

And this sentiment exists here in the United States, although it is not about codfish. The quick and the frozen haunt us, too. Thanksgiving in a restaurant and roast beef and mashed potatoes from a resealable plastic container. Cooking odors of chemicals, food additives, and plastic. (If you’ll permit me a personal aside here:  I make all our bread and just walking by the plastic-bagged bread in my local grocery store is enough to make me sick. The smell of preservatives lingers; yet my friends, who eat this bread all the time, think I’m smelling cleaning fluid. I’m not … it’s only by the bread aisle that the stink crawls up my nostrils.)

I wonder what food memories children will have who eat only this bread and Mac n’ Cheese out of a box week after week?

But I digress. Or do I? This is about cod, isn’t it? Or is it about more than one fish in the sea?

Read about the history of the codfish phenomenon in Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997). Another book with a different slant, but nonetheless insightful, is Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World, by Brian Fagan.

Robyn Lee
Photo credit: Robyn Lee

*Brandade de Morue Nîmes

[Note: For a visual rendition of the process (annotated in French), see “La Brandade de Morue: la Fausse et la Vraie” (The False and the True). This makes an excellent appetizer for use during the holiday season. CB]

Desalt 2 kg (4-1/2 lb) salt cod, changing the water several times. Cut the fish into pieces and poach it very gently in water for 8 minutes. Drain, then remove the bones and skin. Heat 2 dl (7 fluid oz, 3/4 cup) olive oil in a thick-bottomed saucepan until it begins to smoke. Add the cod then crush and work the mixture with a wooden spoon, while heating gently. When it forms a fine paste, remove the pan from the heat. Continue to work the brandade then, while stirring continuously, gradually add 4 to 5 dl (14 to 17 fluid oz, 1-3/4 to 2 cups) olive oil, alternating with 2.5 dl (8 fluid oz, 1 cup) boiled milk or fresh cream. Season with salt and white pepper. The result should be a smooth white paste with the consistency of potato purée. Pile the brandade into a dish and garnish with triangles of crustless bread fried in oil. It can also be put into the oven to brown, just before serving.

Original 1961 Dust Jacket
Original 1961 Dust Jacket

Recipe from  Larousse Gastronomique, edited by Jenifer Harvey Lang.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen