Friday, April 2, 2010

Salt cod

It’s all about preservation.

Salting has always been a way of extending the life of many food stuffs: olives, capers, ham, cheeses – in days before refrigeration, the introduction of salt allowed for the extended storage of food, particularly throughout winter.

The preservation of cod by drying is known to have occurred as early as the tenth century. This method of preservation, as practiced by the Vikings, was a combination of open air drying, where cod were hung to dry freeze in the arctic conditions, taking on salt in the atmosphere, and releasing moisture as they dried. Basques improved on the Vikings’ efforts: they introduced salting before drying, creating a product with an even longer shelf life. Records indicate that in the fourteenth significant amounts of salted cod were imported from famine struck Norway into Mediterranean countries, particularly Spain, in exchange for base commodities such as flour, salt and malt.

According to Kurlansky, Basque sailors made a fortune selling salt cod in the fifteenth century.* The edicts of the Catholic church forbade the consumption of meat on certain holy days (ironically known as ‘feast days’) – which accounted for over a third of the year. However, fish (along with frogs and snails) were not considered ‘flesh’ and therefore were able to be consumed. Basque sailors recognised their opportunity and capitalised by making increasing quantities of salt cod (bacalao in Spanish and bacallà in the Catalan language) available for sale. According to Kurlansky, some of these wily Basques travelled as far as the as yet undiscovered America to source their cod, which was ever-diminishing in the Atlantic and Mediterranean waters. In order to protect their secret supply, the Basques kept the new land a secret (only to have it discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who insisting on letting the whole world know).

In modern times, refrigeration and deep-freeze have all but eradicated the need to preserve by salting. The feast days proscribing meat have drastically shrunk: or at least, observance of the prohibition is less and less stringent. And modern production has slowly but surely embraced modern technology. Where cod was traditionally hung in open air to absorb salt and dry out, curing is now most likely to take place indoors, aided by electric heaters.

Cod, like ham and bacon, is now produced for preference rather than preservation. In the absence of traditional production methods, the consumption of salt cod is a tenuous link to the practices of the past: a truncated preservation of culture and practice. Good Friday represents perhaps the last widely observed day of salt cod, a ritual standing in for Religious observance in an increasing secularised post-industrial world.

And there is a third preservation at stake: that of the cod itself. Kurlansky quotes Alexander Dumas in 1873: "It has been calculated that if no accident prevented the hatching of the eggs and each egg reached maturity, it would take only three years to fill the sea so that you could walk across the Atlantic dryshod on the backs of cod." And yet: cod biomass is declining. This is fancy way of saying there is less and less cod.* A combination of ongoing overfishing and climate change has resulted reduced numbers. American, Canadian and British fisheries authorities have all expressed concerns regarding shrinking stocks. Various environmentalists have placed Atlantic cod on ‘best to avoid’ list.**

Which leaves me torn: preservation of the cultural tradition of salt cod may be at odds with preservation of the fish itself. There is no getting around diminishing numbers (climate change believer or sceptic, the data is as follows: the sea is warmer and the cod are fewer. Make of it what you will). The good news is: cod is indeed, as Dumas observed, prolific. Sustainable fishing practices and cod-farming are being pursued. The people of the world demand cod. We demand eternal cod, cod to last the ages. Cod for the now, and cod for the future. Cod must be preserved if we are to continue to preserve cod.

* The aptly named Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Kurlansky, Walker and Company 1997
** Fishing, climate change and north-east Atlantic cod stock by Nova Mieszkowska, David Sims and Steve Hawkins May 2007; and Marine Biological Association of the UK, Plymouth; and US National Maritime Fisheries Service
*** For example:

Bacallà fritters

Serves six

750 gms salt cod
500 ml milk
2 red onions, finely chopped
4 cloved garlic, crushed
1 kg waxy potatoes, peeled, boiled and mashed
½ cup chopped spring onions
3 eggs, separated, whites whisked to stiff peaks
250 ml vegetable oil

Soak, soak, soak the cod. For up to 48 hours, but definitely no fewer than 24 hours. Change the water every four or five hours.

Mix the potatoes and spring onions in a large bowl.

In a medium sized saucepan sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Add to the potato mixture.

In the same saucepan, add the cod, milk and enough water to cover the water. If the cod doesn’t fit, just cut into two or three pieces. Bring to a simmer, and cook for about ½ hour or until soft.

Remove the cod and rinse. When cool enough to touch, remove the skin and bones and shred coarsely into the potato mixture. Stir through the egg yokes until combined. Gentle fold through half the whisked egg whites, and then fold through the remaining eggs whites. The cod is very salty. Do not add more salt. Seriously.

Heat vegetable oil to medium hot (it should sizzle gently when a piece of bread is added). Add heaped dessert spoons of the mixture to the oil, carefully spacing the fritters out (do not add too many to the pan at once, as the heat will reduce and they won’t cook evenly). Turn gently and cook on the other side. Remove and drain while the rest of the fritters cook. Repeat with remaining mixture.

Serve with steamed cabbage and fennel or salad, and garlic aioli or crème fraiche.

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