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Codfish, Bounty from the Vikings

Codfish, Bounty from the Vikings

What do the traditional cuisines of Portugal, Spain and Venice have in common? Salt cod, “raided” from the Vikings centuries ago. Discover more about codfish.

By FDL on

The cod is no romantic fish. Its capture has inspired neither masterpieces, like Melville's whales, nor heroic rituals, such as the Sicilian tuna cull or "mattanza".

In fact, when compared to the proud marlin that Santiago fought in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, it is really quite boring. Indeed, it would seem that when it is caught, it doesn't even struggle, but simply resigns itself fatalistically to its destiny. And yet, despite its lack of literary propensity, very few fish have played such an important role in the history of humankind.

From the Early Middle Ages, cod was essential in enabling the Vikings to sail across the ocean, reaching the coasts of Terra Nova as early as the 10th century. They were in the habit of drying the freshly-fished cod in the cold North Sea winds, until it became hard as a stick, and could be easily preserved (and transported) on their Atlantic voyages. On the boats, the "stockfish" was broken into pieces and chewed, as if it were a ship's biscuit. It was certainly no culinary delicacy, but it was nonetheless highly energetic. 

Indeed, cod boasts remarkable nutritional properties: it contains over 18% protein, which once dried rises to almost 80%. A veritable protein concentrate, which goes some way to explaining its success : for the less wealthy classes, it has always been a good quality and relatively inexpensive food.

And yet dried and salted cod are not so much the typical dishes of Scandinavian cuisine as they are of regions where a cod has never been seen to swim, such as Portugal, the Basque countries (Spain) and Veneto (Italy). In order to understand why they became so important in these countries, we need to take a look back at history.

The first to convert to salt cod were Basque sailors, who ventured into the waters of the northern Atlantic around the year 1000, hunting the whales that passed through the Bay of Biscay. They came into contact with the Viking sailors, discovering the nutritional properties of cod, and imagining its commercial value. We owe to them the tradition of conservation using salt that gave rise to "bacalhau". But soon the Portuguese were to become the real cod "champions", when from the 13th century onward, they launched out into fishing (sailing as far as the coasts of Terra Nova and Greenland) and fish trading, selling this product that was ideal to feed the Portuguese sailors during their lengthy travels around the world, as well as the poor folk back home. 

Its success was due to its excellent preservability at a time when refrigeration was a real problem. Cod is almost completely free of fat, so that once it has been salted it is unlikely to go bad. And so “bacalhau” made its appearance on Portuguese tables, never more to disappear. They call it “amigo fiel”, or "faithful friend", and it is said that they have over a thousand different ways of preparing it.

In the same years when the Portuguese were riding the Atlantic waves with ships laden with salt cod, another maritime people, the Venetians, were also coming into contact with dried cod. The story of how this came to be is a curious one. Tradition has it that in the spring of 1431, a Venetian ship, the Gemma Quirina, captained by one Pietro Querini, had set sail, laden with spices and 800 barrels of Malvasia wine, bound for Flanders. 

After passing through the English Channel, the rudder broke, leaving the vessel at the mercy of the winds and tides. Having struggled for days to try to govern the ship, Captain Querini ordered his men to cut the mast and climb into the lifeboats. Of the 68 crew on board, only 14 survived. They landed on the uninhabited rocks of Sandøy, in the Lofoten islands. Here they were rescued by fishermen from the island of Røst. 

For four months, the Venetians lived with the Norwegian fishermen, and learnt the art of preserving cod. When Querini set sail for home, he brought 60 stockfish with him, which he used to pay his passage. Having reached Venice, the captain drafted a long report for the city Senate, praising the qualities of the stockfish, and suggesting its commercial uses, since it was a “great and inestimable commodity”. 

After a few short months, Querini returned to Norway, and began trading in stockfish, which was soon to become a regular feature – as it still is today - on the tables of Venice. The cod may not be a romantic fish, but it certainly does have some tales to tell.

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