Salt of life: the bond between Portugal and cod
Although the Portuguese do not have cod in their waters, and are generally known for having a sweet tooth, one of Portugal’s most famous culinary traditions is as “fishy” as it is salty! “Bacalhau” is so important in Portugal that there are more than 365 recipes to celebrate it, one for each day of the year...
The Portuguese’s long-lasting love affair with “bacalhau”, as cod is known in Portugal, goes far beyond the wonderful dishes that are served throughout the country. More than food, cod is a national symbol and metaphor of the Portuguese way of life, where a long history of sacrifices and conquests walks hand in hand.
It all started with the Vikings…
The first people to fish for cod were the Vikings, who preserved the fish whole by letting it dry in the open air. It was only during the Middle Ages that they began preserving it with salt, which they bought from Portugal and paid for with cod. An advantageous exchange for the Portuguese, which had plenty of salt to sell. The consumption of salted cod quickly spread throughout Portugal due to its low cost and easy transportation.
At the turn of the 15th century, the Portuguese became pioneers in setting up large ships for cod fishing. However, salted cod was not considered "first class" food in Portugal. As meat was expensive and supplying fresh fish to the interior of mainland Portugal was too complicated, salted cod was an easily accessible and cheap alternative in the diet of the majority of the population. Only later does salted cod become part of the culinary habits of the middle and upper classes.
From food to political propaganda…
In the 20th century, during the fascist regime of the “Estado Novo", cod fishing became one of the many instruments used for political propaganda in Portugal. The cod fishermen who sailed off to the icy waters of Newfoundland and Greenland were celebrated for their bravery and courage, and beyond its borders Portugal was praised for its ability to create a thriving industry.
In Lisbon, pompous ceremonies were carefully planned by the fascist government to bless the fleet of boats, known as "lugres bacalhoeiros". It became such a key issue for the regime that a specific plan, known as "Campanha do Bacalhau”, was created to increase domestic production capacity. The operation was controlled by the government, which fixed prices, guaranteed cheap and disciplined labour, provided financing for ships and conditioned imports. The cod fleet was so important to Portugal that the men who volunteered to work in it were exempted from compulsory military service.
The Portuguese captains and fishermen were portrayed as patriotic heroes and compared to the navigators of the Age of the Discoveries by the regime and the press. However, this wave of national emotion and pride did not prevent the working conditions on board the ships from being very harsh. On each fishing trip fewer men returned than those who had set sail, and the lives of these fishermen was far from the romantic epic that the Government tried to show the rest of the world.
Many Portuguese who are now between 60 and 80 years old left their homes and families from the poorest rural areas and fishing villages in Portugal to join the “bacalhoeiros”. They sailed out into the unknown, many leaving their villages for the first time, to face extremely difficult conditions on six-month long trips.
The fisherman led a life of sacrifice, as cod fishing was still done in the traditional way, using a single-man boat thrown into the sea called a "dóris". They had to endure long working hours and were forced to row away from the main ship hundreds of metres, sometimes two or three miles, to manually fish with lines and hooks. Each one fished alone for 8 to 10 hours until their small boat was loaded with cod, often surrounded by freezing winds, strong waves and icebergs. After returning to the ship, they had to continue their work on deck and in the hold, where the cod caught had to be immediately scaled and salted.
In the 1950s, the Portuguese cod fleet was at its peak, being one of the world’s largest producers of salted cod. However, with the fall of the fascist regime everything changed. The last three large cod fishing ships went to sea for the last time in 1974, the same year that Portugal freed itself from dictatorship and the peaceful revolution of April 25th brought democracy to the country.
With the end of the hard labour of fishermen, the price of cod increased to such an extent that it became inaccessible to many Portuguese families. However, the price per kilo matters little when the Portuguese have to keep traditions alive, thus honouring those who worked so hard to bring it to their tables for centuries.
The tradition of eating cod in Portugal
Any time is a good time to eat cod in Portugal, however none is as symbolic as Christmas. Salted cod is the most important and traditional Portuguese Christmas dish, normally served during “Consoada” (Christmas Eve dinner).
However, the versatility of cod allows it to be eaten several other ways. At any Portuguese café you can easily find the popular "pastel de bacalhau", a small fried pattie made of potatoes, salted cod, eggs and parsley. There are several other similar snacks, from the traditional "pataniscas de bacalhau" to the raw salted cod salad known as "punheta de bacalhau".
As a main course, there are countless “bacalhau” dishes that can be found in “tascas” or restaurants, with versions for all tastes and several ways to enjoy it... even fresh, although the majority of the Portuguese have probably never tasted cod without it being salted!
Portugal’s most popular cod dishes
Among the famous Portuguese codfish recipes, these are some of the most popular:
Bacalhau cozido – This is Portugal’s most traditional cod dish: simply boiled with an egg, vegetables, and seasoned with olive oil. For a perfectly boiled salted cod, place the cod fillets in a generous pot of boiling water with a clove of garlic and a bay leaf. When the water starts to boil again, turn it off and wait 15 minutes. And that’s it, simple and delicious!
Bacalhau assado – This dish also dispenses any special seasoning or sauces! Simply place the cod fillets greased with olive oil on a hot roasting grill, grill on both sides, and then serve with baked potatoes and drizzle everything with olive oil and garlic.
Bacalhau à Brás – In this dish the cod is shredded and placed in a pan with olive oil, finely chopped fried potatoes, onions and scrambled eggs. It is served with black olives and chopped parsley on top.
Bacalhau com Natas – In this deliciously gooey recipe, shreds of cod are wrapped in béchamel sauce and a creamy mixture of chips (finely chopped or in small cubes) and onions fried in olive oil. Then it bakes in the oven, covered with grated cheese or breadcrumbs on top, to brown.
Bacalhau com broa – Served in a tray covered with thinly sliced onions, bay leafs and watered with plenty of olive oil, the cod is then topped with crumbled corn bread, chopped garlic and more olive oil (you can never have too much olive oil in Portuguese cuisine!). It then bakes in the oven until forming a delicious golden crust.
Bacalhau à lagareiro – This recipe also goes into the oven, but the cod is accompanied by baked potatoes, and watered with sliced garlic cloves and onions fried in olive oil. One of Portugal’s favourite comfort foods!
Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá – Many popular cod dishes are named after their author. Created in Porto by José Luís Gomes de Sá, this recipe is served in a tray, with small slices of boiled salted cod, previously softened with milk, and accompanied by potatoes, boiled eggs, black olives and parsley.
Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo – Another popular signature dish. The cod is cooked au gratin, in a soft mixture of mayonnaise, red pepper and bay leaves, wrapped in mashed potatoes and topped with fresh olives.
Regardless of how you like your salted cod, one thing is for sure: there is nothing like trying new recipes… and they are all very simple to make. But don't forget that salted cod has to be soaked before being cooked!
How to soak salted cod
Wash the cod two or three times before soaking to remove excess salt.
Then soak the cod in a bowl of cold water and place it in the fridge, for 48 hours, changing the water three times during that period.
To check the salt level, you can taste some middle pieces during the process.
The larger the cod, the longer it takes to release the salt, but the right timing ultimately depends on your personal taste.
With a glass of delicious Portuguese wine and a fantastic view to keep you company, who knows? You might even discover that sometimes all you need is an extra pinch of salt to keep life very sweet…