“‘You have heard people speak of the Hanseatic League, the merchants in Bergen?’
‘Indeed – we were there a few days ago.’
‘Then you’ll perhaps know it was these people, who were not Norweigan at all, who developed the business of the salt-cod trade?'”
Elizabeth Luard, Still Life
Bacalao is the Spanish word for ‘cod’ – it applies as much to simple fresh cod as to the more famous and popular salted cod – more popular (at least in Spain) because it has more flavour. This is particularly the case nowadays when most cod comes from fish farms. The cod, in fact, comes from Norway or Iceland. Bacalao was first enjoyed, centuries ago by the Basques, who, like the Vikings, had discovered the Americas long before Columbus. They also discovered the vast cod banks nearby.
In 1992 these cod banks collapsed, but stocks in the north-east Arctic and Iceland are now fished sustainable, and those in the UK’s northerly waters are also recovering.
On my last trip to Rome (see Gladiator Salad) I discovered that salted cod is also a big deal in Italy, particularly in Rome, where it is known as baccalà. It popularity, originally, arose because it was a cheap way of providing Catholic countries with fish for Fridays and during Lent. In Italy it’s usually soaked ready-soaked (bagnati), and there is a skill in the soaking.
You will find the recipe for cooking bacalao at the bottom of this post.
where to buy salted… and desalted cod
You can buy ready salted cod, but it needs quite a bit of rinsing and soaking to render it edible unless you buy desalted on-the-bone salt cod – which is available from The Fish Society. The Fish Society also supplies still-salted bacalao, and it is also available from Melbury & Appleton.
how to desalt cod
To desalt bacalao rinse it in cold running water and then put it in a shallow dish and cover it with more water. Cover the dish with cling film and put it in the fridge for at least a day – two is probably better, changing the water at least three times a day. Taste it after 24 hours – if it’s still very salty, leave for another day. It will swell up to three times its original weight.
what to look for when buying salted cod
In terms of buying, select a whole piece of cod complete with skin and bones or get a cut from the whole fish as it has the most intense flavour and best texture. A good piece of bacalao will be slightly grey-white in colour, never yellow, and although it is dried it should not be stiff but slightly pliable.
how to salt your own cod
Alternatively you can salt it yourself. It’s important to use good quality sea salt (table salt won’t do). For four people you would need about 1Kg/just ove 2 lbs fresh cod and sprinkle it generously with sea salt. Leave for three or four hours to dehydrate and then rinse it and dry on kitchen paper.
what to do with salted cod
There are a lot of interesting things to be done with bacalao – a bit like bacon, its saltiness spices up a whole array of recipes. As with bacon, never salt the dish until you have tasted it at the end:
- Bacalao al ajo arriero: with lots of tomatoes and garlic – good hearty fare, the lorry driver’s choice
- Bacalao a la Vizcaina: with a beautiful deep red sauce of dried peppers
- Bacalao al pil-pil: with chilli and garlic, parsley and lemon, served still sizzling from the frying pan – a positively sensuous dish, see below. It’s an onomatopoeic name inspired by the spluttering oil. If you happen to be in the Basque country you can make pil-pil with kokotxas (the fleshy, gelatinous bits under the jaw of a hake – considered a delicacy. You can try this in London at Lurra.
- Bacalao on melba toast with mustard honey sauce
- Bacalao with samphire – a heady mix of sea and beach
- Bacalao cooked in cider – see recipe below
- Bacalao with salsa verde
- Make fritters. In her bible of Middle Eastern food, Persiana, Sabrina Ghayour says these are good with drinks or as part of a mezze. The cod is mixed with mashed potato, herbs and spices, dunked in egg, then rolled in flour, fried and then served with lime wedges.
- Make a brandada de bacalao (aka a brandade in France) by mixing an emulsion of bacalao and olive oil. Eat with bread, potatoes and artichokes or use to stuff courgette flowers
- Fry with a peeled, chopped banana shallot, add raisins, pine nuts. Add a tin of tomatoes. DON’T add salt, DO add pepper. This is my rendering of a Roman dish known as baccalà in guazzetto alla romana.
- It’s very good with onions and potatoes (in Italian, Baccalà con cipolle e patate). Desalt the cod as described above. Fry a couple of onions and potatoes in olive oil until the onions go translucent. Add half a cup of white wine, and another half of fish stock, bring to the boil, put the fish (about 300g/10 oz) on top, and simmer for about half an hour. Serve with some chopped parsley and a drizzle of finishing oil.
the magic of bacalao al pil-pil
In Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Recetas Inmorales he describes the magic of the salt cod. A dry board of a fish, resuscitated by water and transformed into a luxurious malleable material, “like marble in the hands of Michaelangelo, or clay used by Guadix to make a glass…. two people who eat bacalao al pil pil have no choice but to become ‘communicating vessels'”…. a great dish which he says enables the partaker to navigate successfully through the vagaries of one’s love life.
salted cod with scrambled eggs
And finally, best of all, with scrambled eggs. How do I know this? Last month I went on a long weekend with my daughter to Seville. We’d done all kinds of research into hotels, restaurants, what to do, with more or less success, and, as usual, rather overstuffing our minutes and days. However sometimes the best discoveries come entirely by chance. Running breathlessly between the giralda and a churreria my daughter spotted an interesting doorway, and noted it. The following day we thought we’d explore.
Ristorante San Marco is located in beautifully restored twelfth century Arabian baths. It is one of the best restaurants I have been to in Spain, and the best thing we tried on the menu was the scrambled eggs with bacalao. In the same way that the saltiness of bacon goes well with scrambled eggs, the saltiness of the cod also does, but it’s a bit more subtle.
Recipe for cooking bacalao in cider
For two people as a large tapa or a light lunch, make the salted cod as described above, rinsing well. then cook the fish by the method given below and keep warm. Then cook the scrambled eggs by this method. Flake the fish onto the scrambled eggs and serve on toasted ciabatta.
- 250g/8 oz cod
- 1 cube of fish stock
- 4 saffron threads
- 80 ml/⅓ cup dry cider
- 3 tbsp water
- preheat the oven to 180°C
- heat the stock cube, the cider, the water, and the saffron until boiling
- put the fish in a ceramic baking dish, pour over the liquid
- cook in the oven for about ten minutes – until the fish is no longer translucent
- drain the fish, deskin and flake onto the scrambled eggs