Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Tale of Saltfish

It has been another long hiatus since my last update, mostly spent in enjoyable wanderings getting the feel of Newfoundland – from the rugged geology and rocky coastlines to the incredibly friendly people to the excellent traditional music on the radio (a blend of seafaring ballads and chanties, Irish tunes, and something uniquely Newfoundland). After two leisurely weeks with Adam exploring St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador and both the oldest and easternmost city in North America, and a week visiting beautiful, friendly and very fishery-oriented Fogo Island, I’m now back in St. John’s, settling in a bit for the last weeks of my long adventure. The places I’ve been deserve telling of their own, but for now what I really want to write is an experiment in…food blogging.

This, of course, is not a food blog, but I remember that quite a while back, my favorite food blogger mentioned that she would write something about bacalao and never got around to it. So, inspired by having the past and present world of bacalao all around me, I thought I’d try to pinch hit.

Bacalao, of course, is cod. Dried, salted cod to be specific. Although even today, there is no word in Spanish for fresh cod – it has to be specified as fresh bacalao. This may seem strange in an age where fish is flown around the world to arrive fresh to markets tens of thousands of miles away, but in the days when cod was a major staple food and item of trade, the only way to ship it was once it had been preserved for travel.

I picked up my saltcod in Bergen, Norway, where it goes by the name klippfisk. Bergen came to prominence in the Hanseatic age as an important trading center, and in those days most of the warehouses on the famous Hanseatic wharf at Bryggen were full of stockfish and klippfisk.

(Today, Bryggen is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and most of the buildings contain gift shops, restaurants, and museums.)

Having already tasted traditional Norwegian preparations of cod, I took the opportunity while in Bergen to try the dish simply known as “bacalao,” the traditional Spanish and Portuguese preparation of saltfish, no doubt introduced to Norwegians by the many foreign traders who come to buy their fish. (Even recipes on Mexican websites say that Norwegian saltfish is the best quality, and worth paying extra for.)

So I went to one of the restaurants along the historic wharf in Bryggen, decorated in proper Bryggen cultural-heritage style with old wooden ships, paintings of ships, and ropes, blocks, and other odds and ends taken from ships. Norwegian businessmen were enjoying lunch and plenty of Norwegian beer (only Norwegians enjoy Norwegian beer because everyone else is still too hung up on the price).

And I ordered myself a lunch portion of bacalao.

It tasted rather like a stew, with the fish cooked along with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and a faint hint of spiciness, although not too much, since the Norwegian palate is generally not accustomed to very spicy foods. It was good, particularly with good French bread.

So good that I decided to embark on my own culinary adventures with bacalao. So I went across the street to the seafood store in town and bought myself my own kilogram of klippfisk to bring with me on my journey from Bergen to St. John’s.

Even though I didn’t cook my Norwegian klippfisk in Norway, Newfoundland is also an ideal place to experiment in cooking saltfish, since the original European explorers chose to settle on this rock in the harsh Atlantic climate not for its beauty but for its cod, which was both traded and eaten at home salted and dried for most of the island’s history as both the Newfies’ staple food and as the “Newfoundland currency” as proclaimed on an early stamp.

In downtown St. John’s, murals and statues speak to the importance of catching, preparing, and selling saltfish in the town’s history.

And on my trip out to Fogo Island, I had the chance to see some of Newfoundland’s best-preserved fishing stages, used for “making” the fish – the process of salting and drying the cod after it was brought back ashore.

So it was in the most appropriate of circumstances that I made my first-ever homecooked saltfish into bacalao. The process started the night before, since saltfish needs to soak for about 24 hours to rehydrate the fish and get rid of some of the saltiness. Although not all directions call for it, I also changed the water in the morning to make sure to get rid of enough of the salt.
Here’s the recipe I used, loosely adapted from a number of versions found online:

  • half a kilogram of klippfisk
  • 1 large or 2 small cans of peeled, cut tomatoes (whatever’s handy will do, just note that the more runny your canned tomatoes, the more watery your finished product will end up, determining whether it seems more like soup or stew)
  • half of a large white onion, chopped
  • a lot of garlic, (in my mind, the more the better), around 4 to 6 cloves, half as whole cloves and half pressed or cut fairly finely
  • half a cup of olive oil
  • a small jar of green olives (around a cup)
  • a sliced red pepper
  • a jar of chiles in vinegar (or if, like me, you can’t find chiles, whatever hot peppers are in the store)
  • 6 small potatoes, about 2 cups

You'll want to start with two pots on the stove - one with water to boil the potatoes, and a second one (the one everything will end up in at the end) with olive oil in the bottom. While the potatoes boil, heat the olive oil with half of the garlic, still as whole cloves, until the garlic is brown. Once the garlic seems entirely browned, discard it - now the olive oil has extra garlicy taste.

Add the tomatoes, cut garlic, and onion to the oil and mix will. Heat until everything reaches a boil and cook for a minute on a low simmer before adding the fish. Break the saltfish into pieces as you add it to the pot. After you’ve finished adding the fish, dump in the red pepper and olives. You can also add some of the vinegar from the chiles or hot peppers if you like spiciness – I used a couple of tablespoons, but you should taste it to check. Mix everything together and boil until everything is hot and the fish seems cooked, but not overcooked, which takes around 15 to 20 minutes. While it cooks, take your boiled potatoes, which should be done by now, and cut them into slices.

When the bacalao mixture is fully cooked, remove it from the stove and add the potatoes. It should look something like this:Serve it with the peppers or chiles on top. Very good with French bread. Also good with philosophical musings about the significance of saltfish throughout history and throughout the north Atlantic. Mmm, tasty.


adele said...

*groan* I was going to write about baccala, wasn't I? I think my list of things I need to blog about is now over fifty items long.

I think you've done a fantastic job of food blogging in my stead. :P (Are you sure you don't want to start a food blog when your adventures abroad are over?)

The fish looks delicious, and Adam certainly looks as though he's enjoying it.

Hilary said...

I'm glad you approve of my food blogging attempt. Future blogging attempts are still yet to be determined, though, (along with job, place to live, etc.) so for now I'll have to enjoy your food offerings.

And maybe I'll figure out where to find saltfish in the states...

Andrea said...

I'm sorry I have to use this to get ahold of you, hah, but if you still would like to go to services at the Havurah tomorrow, I can give you a lift!