Air-dried, cured by the salt breeze from the sea without the benefit of salt or smoke, Viking longships never left home without it. Leif Eriksson chewed it all the way to Newfoundland. It was traded for gold and slaves up and down the west coast of Africa. You’ll find it sold at Easter and Christmas in the villages, towns and cities of the Mediterranean littoral, a reminder of the days when Roman Catholic Europe obeyed draconian rules of fast.
Stockfish, cod caught in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, then split and gutted and hung on wooden racks to dry in the icy air of an Arctic spring, has provided the inhabitants of the rocky coasts of Norway with their winter stores ever since sailors first put to sea in wooden ships. Once prepared — dehydrated to the point where the fish has lost around 80 percent of its moisture — it’s virtually immortal, serving as a trade item as well as ship’s stores on the long sea voyages when men might not set foot on land for months.
Air-drying versus salt-curing: cod two ways
Stockfish is not the same as salt-cod (or bacalao) which is cured, as its name suggests, by dry-salting, the method used to prepare meat and fish for storage and transport in the dry hot lands of southern Europe. Somewhat confusingly, much of the world’s salt-cod now comes from Norway — mostly from the Lofoten Islands, an ice-girt archipelago just to the north of the Arctic Circle where wind-drying rather than salt-curing is the traditional method of preserving the catch. For their expertise in an alien preparation method, the fishermen have to thank the merchant-bankers of the Hanseatic League, who controlled the profitable salt-cod trade in the days when the church had designated nearly half the year as fast-days. Not only Fridays but Wednesdays and the eves of important saints’ days as well as the 40-day Lent which precedes Christmas as well as Easter. Since meat was prohibited at such times (cheese and eggs too), the trade in preserved fish was profitable enough to fund the transport of salt from the Mediterranean to the islands where the cod come in to spawn.
While there’s a wealth of traditional Mediterranean recipes for bacalao, the taste for stockfish survives outside Norway only in those places where trade had been conducted directly with the Norsemen, or where it entered the culinary vocabulary of their trading-partners in the form of ship’s stores. And while bacalao is relatively widely available as an imported foodstuff, stockfish is not easy to come by, and particularly so where I live in the wilds of Wales, where, although the region certainly has an ancient tradition of preserving both meat and fish, the climate’s too damp for wind-drying without salt.
Which was why I was delighted to acquire my very own stockfish at this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, courtesy of a consortium of Norwegian members of Slow Food who provided attendees with a magnificent fishy banquet, including several dishes prepared with stockfish.
A passion more than two decades in the making
My interest in stockfish — a single fish sells at around $90, so it can be counted a luxury — dates back some 20 years when I first visited the Lofoten Islands and the ports of Svolvaer and Henningsvaer in late spring and watched the fishermen hang the catch on what looked like enormous clothes racks to dry in the Arctic breeze. So when, the following year, an invitation arrived for Torskensdag, also known as Day of the Cod, in early February to mark the first catch of the year, I jumped at the chance. The cod-shoals arrive from the Barents Sea to spawn beneath the ice wall in the islands’ shallows in the warmth of the Gulf Stream. At the time, the late ‘90′s, the cod-shoals were already in decline — but this was not unusual. The shoals, said the fishermen, had always been unpredictable. There had been a time when the Lofoten islanders had endured a hundred years of empty nets — black seas — saved only by the Hansa bankers who continued to bankroll the fishermen till the cod returned and the loans could be repaid.
On the menu at the feast for some 200 guests seated at long tables in a wooden warehouse was the first catch of the year. The fish, exquisitely creamy curds of impeccable freshness, was poached in cream with dill and served with potatoes sauced with fresh cod-liver, marvelously buttery and sweet. Sagas of the Viking cod-fishermen were sung throughout.
In its land of origin, strips of raw stockfish are eaten in much the same way as biltong, as a portable snack. The traditional Norwegian accompaniment for plain-poached stockfish is a sauce of melted butter and chopped hard-boiled eggs, though modern cooks much prefer the national foodstuff as prepared in Spain, Italy, Portugal or France. While bacalao recipes are 10 a penny throughout the Mediterranean, stockfish is more elusive: You’ll find it in Italy in the Veneto (where, confusingly, it’s known as baccala); in Sicily, where the Norsemen traded; and in France in the upland villages of the central plateau, where the product’s longevity recommended it to isolated communities which rarely had access to market-goods.
A preference for wind-dried stockfish over salt-cured bacalao is a matter of tradition and taste. The flavor of stockfish is stronger and more delicate than bacalao — the difference, say, between a well-matured brie and a salty slab of cheddar. Nevertheless, all Mediterranean recipes which suit one are suitable for the other, and there’s no question that olive oil, garlic and sun-ripened vegetables are the best counterpoint for the food of austerity.
Eating and storing stockfish
If you happen upon some stockfish, storage can be a problem: Flies just love it and it’s not suitable for the fridge. Cut it into manageable pieces and soak for four to five days in plenty of fresh water changed daily and kept well-chilled. When properly rehydrated, drained and smelling as sweet as such fish can ever be, transfer the pieces to a roomy casserole, bring to a boil in fresh water, turn down the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until tender and easy to flake. Skin, de-bone, flake, bag it up and pop it in the deep-freeze until needed.
Here’s what I did with my 3 pounds of stockfish:
Stockfish Fritters With Parsley and Onion
The vigorous flavor of the cured fish is softened with its own weight of potato in this classic Portuguese fish-ball recipe, bolinhos de bacalhau.
- Cook the potatoes in boiling water until perfectly tender. Drain thoroughly and mash with the flaked fish, onion and parsley. Season generously, leave to cool a little, then beat in the eggs.
- Heat two-fingers’ width of oil in a heavy pan. As soon as the oil reaches frying heat, drop in teaspoons of the fish-mixture, a few at a time. Wait until they puff up and bob to the surface, then flick them over to cook the other side. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Continue till the mixture is all used up. Serve hot from the pan with a shake hot sauce.
Stockfish Brandade With Walnut Oil
Brandade de morue, a dip made with salt-cured cod and olive oil, is the traditional Christmas Eve dish throughout France but particularly in olive-growing regions. This is the version prepared in the upland villages of the Auvergne where the olive-tree can‘t thrive, walnut oil is the traditional cooking-oil and wind-dried stockfish is preferred to salt-cured cod.
- Flake the fish (it should take no more than 30 minutes to tenderize) and pound it with the potato, garlic and a little of the oil to make a thick paste. Beat in the rest of the oil gradually as if making a mayonnaise, adding the cream towards the end, until you have a scoopable puree. You can do all this in the food processor, though the result will be smoother and paler. Taste and season with plenty of freshly ground pepper. Serve warm with bread or as a dip for raw vegetables.
Bacalao en pepitoria
This basic recipe is how the villagers liked their salt-cured cod in the remote Andalusian valley where my children went to school.
Serves 6-8 as a starter
1 large onion, half finely-chopped, half finely-sliced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 red pepper, de-seeded and diced
2-3 small hot red chiles, de-seeded and finely chopped
2 pounds tomatoes, skinned and diced
1 pound ready-prepared flaked stockfish
2 tablespoons pinenuts
2 tablespoons green olives
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy pan and add the chopped onion (reserving the sliced) and garlic. Allow to color lightly before adding the red pepper, chile and tomatoes. Simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes until sauce thickens thick and rich. Stir in the flaked fish, and simmer for another 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile fry the sliced onion in the remaining oil in another frying pan till soft. Remove and reserve. Fry the pine nuts briefly till golden, add the olives and the reserved onion. Reheat, then stir into the tomato mixture with the parsley. Simmer for another 10 minutes to blend the flavors.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Image: A watercolor of a dried stockfish.
Credit: Elisabeth Luard