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Salt Cod From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Salt Cod From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

From archaeology to zero point, here are 26 interesting facts and figures about salt cod and stockfish: a food that boasts an ancient history.

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Archaeology. Dried salt cod boasts an ancient history, and stockfish in particular stretches back millennia: thanks to a string of archeological finds we know that even before the Vikings it was an important dietary provision for sailors, and in the event of a surplus was also merchandise that could be traded from port to port.

Bacallos. This was the name used for cod by the inhabitants of the islands of Labrador and Newfoundland, discovered by Cabot at the end of the 15th century. The name "baccalà", which appears in cookbooks around the world, derives from the root "bacal-." In Flemish there is "bakkaliaum" ("fish stick"), Portuguese has "bacalhau" (bacalhau à bras is one of the country's most famous recipes), the Spanish call it "bacalao", in Catalan it's "bacallà", and it's "bakaliáros" (μπακαλιάρος) in Greek. The Basque Country use "bakaiļao" and the Germans say "kabeljau", while it's "bakalar" in Croatia and "bakkeljauw" in the Netherlands. And how about "bakaljaw" in Malta and "makayabu" in Central and Eastern Africa?

Confusion. Salt cod ("baccalà" in Italian) is cod that has been preserved in salt, while stockfish is preserved by drying (this is the oldest method). But not everyone follows the rules, leading to some confusion: if you're in Northern Italy, for example, and you order a "baccalà alla vicentina" (one of Italian cuisine's most beloved dishes), you should know that it's not salt cod: it's stockfish!

Desalting (and not). Before cooking, the salt cod has to "give back" its salt. Careful desalting can sometimes take more than two days, leaving the fish to soak in cold water that is changed multiple times. The same is true for stockfish, which requires anywhere from 36 to 48 hours. In both cases, once this time has elapsed, experts recommend tasting a flake of the fish taken from the centre of the fillet to make sure it is soft, and in the case of salt cod, fully desalted.

Export. Norway exports thousands of tons of salt cod and stockfish every year. Italy is one of the major importers of stockfish, while for salt cod the top honours for 2015 go to Brazil. Other loyal customers include Portugal, Spain, Croatia, Africa, and the US.

February. That's the month when the open-air drying begins for cod destined to become stockfish. Why February? Because the climate is cold, but not overly so (temperatures must be just above freezing), and dry (there is practically no rain in the Scandinavian peninsula during this period). The season ends in June.

Gadus Morrhua. This is the name for the Nordic species of cod, also called white cod (the prized "skrei cod") that is fished in the Northern Atlantic and will go on to become salt cod or stockfish.

Harald V of Norway. The Norwegian monarch has given his personal endorsement to the Norwegian Seafood Council, a body founded by the Norwegian Fisheries Ministry, which every two years names Salt Cod and Stockfish Ambassadors from among the chefs who have most masterfully interpreted these historic ingredients.

Iceland. With all due respect to Norway, it appears that many connoisseurs prefer Icelandic salt cod. Why? The specimens fished in these waters have more developed musculature, and consequently have firmer and more flavourful flesh, because they must face a longer journey to deposit their eggs.

Jute. Stockfish arrives at its destination port in jute sacks, either pressed or folded, tied with iron wire and arranged in 25 or 50kg bales.

Kant. The great critical thinker who wrote "The Critique of Pure Reason" (and much more) was mad for "klippfisk", another name for preserved cod that literally means "rock fish," because in ancient times it was put out to dry on the "klippe", which are the rocks that border the coasts of Norway.

Lofoten. This is the name for the archipelago of seven islands in northwestern Norway whose frigid waters produce the preserved cod sold most widely on markets around the world.

Middle Age. Since the end of the 10th century, the Vikings consumed stockfish on their long voyages, with no culinary "ceremony": they'd simply bite into it as you would a cookie or a crunchy cracker.

Nutrition Foundation of Italy. According to a recent study by the Nutrition Foundation of Italy, both stockfish and salt cod are a cure-all for your health. Rich in Omega 3-6-9, it's good for people with high cholesterol and those with degenerative diseases, and is a useful tool for young women working on their figures and fighting cellulite (thanks to its high iodine content). At the same time, it is a powerful weapon against colds and flu.

Ode. In Italy, the link with preserved cod is so deeply rooted that it has inspired its very own ode, which explains in dialect every step in preparing the perfect baccalà alla vicentina.

Portugal. A famous Portuguese saying tells us that there as many salt cod dishes as there are days in a year. In fact, in Portuguese cuisine alone, there are 366 codified recipes – one for every day plus an extra for leap year!

Querini (Peter). Merchant, sailor, and Senator of the Republic of Venice in the 15th century, he is responsible for having spread the fame of stockfish outside the country of Norway. Shipwrecked in 1432 with 16 of his sailors on the island Røst in the Lofoten archipelago, he was taken in and fed by the local fishermen, thanks to whom he discovered and was later able to share the secrets to preserving cod. He even recorded for posterity a few of its culinary aspects. In his report to the Venetian government, for example, he wrote: "When they wish to eat (...) they combine butirro and spices to give it flavor."

Raisins. In many of the traditional recipes from the Mediterranean, salt cod and stockfish go hand in hand with raisins. Indeed, this unusual pairing turns up in Greek "bakaliaros plaki", Sicilian "baccalà alla siciliana", the Portuguese "empanada gallega de bacalao" and Spanish "bacalao a la Vizcaina".

Salting (and not). For salt cod, the fish must be processed immediately after it is caught. Once in port, the cod is cleaned further, opened like a book to remove the spine, arranged in layers in boxes, and covered in salt for three weeks. Stockfish, on the other hand, doesn't require salt: once cleaned, the fish are left whole and put out to dry, first on open racks for 90 days, and then in a dry, well-ventilated place for another three months.

Trent (Council of). The Council of Trent (1545-1563) is responsible for having introduced a fasting food (for times such as Lent etc.) to the culinary traditions of Catholic countries, popularising salt cod and stockfish in place of more prized and expensive fresh fish. Its spread appears to be due to a council father of German origin, a certain Olao Magno: in a treatise of his, he sang the praises of a "fish called merlusia, dried in the cold winds."

Urban dictionary. Popular sayings around the world mention salt cod and stockfish. In Italy it's not uncommon to hear that someone "acted like a salt cod" (meaning a fool), or was "stood there like a stockfish" (unable to act, frozen stiff), while in Spain you might come across "cortar el bacalao" (to be the boss, to have the final say). And then there's the Puerto Rican zinger "tu eres un bacalao salao" (you only find badly paid jobs).

Vraken. That's the word for the Norwegian "sommelier" (if you'll allow me the term!) who measures, smells, observes, and weighs the stockfish, and then divides them into 30 different categories depending on their size and quality. On the Portuguese website dedicated entirely to Norwegian cod, there's a section for the "SkreiFest", the all salt cod festival organised in Lisbon at the Mercado da Ribeira, where some of that country's greatest chefs offer the fish in creative and traditional ways.

Xxx. Beyond its countless nutritional properties, stockfish and salt cod are also aphrodisiacs because they boast high arginine content, also known as "the amino acid of love".

YouTube. The famous web platform is an inexhaustible trove of advice (for soaking or desalting for example) and recipes (traditional and non) for fans of stockfish and salt cod.

Zero point. 100 grams of soaked stockfish contains barely 0.9 grams of fat. Salt cod has 0.1 grams more ... but that's a mere trifle!

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