Cod Country

by Giovanni PereiraClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (22763) to be taken to his personal page

First published in the UMA News Bulletin under the pen-name "Caramba"
("Hovering" the cursor over a Portuguese word will often reveal the English translation.)

The consumption of cod fish is deeply rooted in Portuguese gastronomic culture. This predilection goes back to the time of Os Descobrimentos Portugueses (Portuguese Discoveries in 15th Century) when fishermen ventured into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. In those days, the fishermen would only eat cured pork, that is until they came upon the cod that could be preserved like meat. It was, to say the least, hard and hazardous work, line fishing in a dóri – a small boat with a fairly deep draught to cope with frequently encountered windy, bone-chilling conditions.

The men would usually take off for the sea in the Spring and wouldn't return till the Fall. Some would never came back. It's no wonder that many of Portugal's poems, songs and folk sayings and even fados, focus upon the proud but bittersweet seafaring tradition, like this version:

O waves from the salty sea,
From whence comes your salt?
From the tears shed on the
Beaches of Portugal

It was only in the middle of the 19th Century that larger, safer boats appeared on the scene to cope with the dangerous waters off the Great Banks of Newfoundland.

Today, cod fishing is virtually an abandoned undertaking in Portugal as the waters off Newfoundland have been over-fished. Now almost all the country's needs are imported from the Nordic countries, principally Norway, to the tune of some 115,000 tonnes a year, dry-salted, wet-salted and frozen.

The cod belongs to the group of non-oily fish because its fat is stored in the liver. As many will recall from childhood, cod liver oil was taken for its vitamins A and D content but its meat is also beneficial, being high in vitamin B12, said to be good for the nervous system. Its roe too is good, being high in Omega 3 as well as in the 'good cholesterol' – high density lipoprotein.

Commercially, cod is sold in Portugal in the following grades:

Prices vary according to origin as well and how it is sliced and packaged. For example, Bacalhau Crescido from Norway will cost about $US3.60 per lb in a supermarket whilst Bacalhau Especial from Iceland could be 50% more expensive.

When it comes to cooking, the salted cod has to be soaked in cold water for at least 24 hour, changing the water midway but always ensuring this is done with the skin of the fish face up, so as not to impede leaching the salt, for the skin is pretty much impermeable. After doing so, one can remove the skin and bones.

It's important not to overcook bacalhau. On the contrary, it should done in boiling water outside the flames, so as to preserve the flavourful gelatine. There is a saying that Portuguese people live on dreams but subsist on bacalhau. So it's no wonder there are more ways to serve it up than there are days in a year!

Undoubtedly the most famous receitas (recipes) are Bacalhau à Bràs (scrambled eggs, onions and shoestring potatoes) and Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (cooked in a casserole with thinly sliced potatoes and onions, garnished with sliced hard boiled eggs and black olives). There is even one version called Bacalhau à Bruxa de Valpaços, named after a witch of the town of Valpaços who apparently was more renowned for her culinary skills than her witchcraft.

Many will remember from their Club Lusitano days in HongKong that Bolo Bacalhau (referred to in Portugal as Pastelinhos de Bacalhau) was a very popular starter.

Here's a recipe perhaps some will find interesting:

Pataniscas de Bacalhau

Ingredients for 4


Cook the bacalhau in water with a dash of salt, the bay leaf and a tooth of garlic (crushed). When cooked, remove skin and bones. Put aside.

In a bowl, beat the eggs and add the flour, mixing to a smooth batter. Add milk, little by little. Season with salt and pepper. Add the other tooth of garlic chopped together with the parsley.

Add the bacalhau, mixing well and leave for 15 minutes. Take tablespoonfuls of the above to fry in olive oil until brown on both sides.

Bom apetite!