It is the king of the menu of any Portuguese restaurant, according to tradition there are 365 different recipes but the Portuguese promise that there are more than 1000. It is the star of Christmas dinners and also of Christmas Day lunch, where the remains of cod and vegetables are mixed with eggs and fried in the pan, an interesting “recycling” of the previous dinner in the traditional “old clothes”.
A real national dish! But few know that cod is actually caught thousands of kilometres from Portugal!
Worldwide appreciated, the history of cod is more than thousands years old. There are records of factories for processing cod in Iceland and Norway in the 9th century. Vikings are considered the pioneers in the discovery of the cod gadus morhua, a species that was abundant in the seas that sailed. Since they had no salt, they just dried the fish in the open air, until it lost almost a fifth of its weight and hardened like a wooden board, to be consumed in pieces on the long trips they made in the oceans.
But it is due to the Basques, people who inhabited the two sides of the Western Pyrenees, on the side of Spain and France, the cod trade. The Basques knew about salt and there are records that in the year 1000, they traded cured, salted and dry cod. Cod was a revolution in food, because at the time food spoiled due to its precarious conservation and had limited commercialisation (the refrigerator appeared in the 20th century). The method of salting and drying the food, besides guaranteeing its perfect preservation, kept all the nutrients and refined the taste. The cod meat still facilitated its salty and dry preservation, due to the extremely low fat content and the high concentration of proteins.
A product of such value has always aroused the commercial interest of countries with fishing fleets. In 1532, the control of cod fishing in Iceland triggered a conflict between the English and the Germans known as the “Cod Wars”
The Portuguese discovered cod in the 15th century, at the time of great sailing. They needed products that were not perishable, that could withstand long journeys, which sometimes took more than 3 months to cross the Atlantic.
They made attempts with several fish from the Portuguese coast, but went to find the ideal fish near the North Pole. In fact, the Portuguese were the first to go fishing for cod in Terra Nova (Canada), which was discovered in 1497. There are records that in 1508 cod corresponded to 10% of the fish traded in Portugal.
In 1596, during the reign of D. Manuel, the tithing of the Terra Nova fishery was collected at the ports of Entre Douro and Minho. They also fished for cod off the coast of Africa.
Cod was immediately incorporated into eating habits and is still one of its main traditions today.
The Catholic Church, in the Middle Ages, maintained a strict calendar in which Christians should obey fasting days, excluding meats considered “hot” from their diet. Cod was a “cold” food and its consumption was encouraged by traders on fast days. With that, it started to have a strong identification with the religiosity and culture of the Portuguese people.
Cod did not escape the propaganda of the Estado Novo, which transformed the harsh fishing struggles into a romanticised epic, in this contradiction of projecting the Portuguese people as a brave people.
Cod is called a faithful friend, as it is present in the lives of many Portuguese at important moments. This happens, as it is a fantastic ingredient that is the origin of several recipes, claiming for itself the main role.
But how to prepare cod?
After desalting the cod fillet in cold water for three days and changing the water every 5-8 hours, it can finally be boiled, grilled, sautéed, fried, baked in the oven … Bacalhau a Brás (with fries and eggs in the pan) , Bacalhau a Gomez da Sá (cooked with boiled egg and boiled potatoes and baked in the oven), Bacalhau a Nata, (in the oven mixed with french fries and cream), Bacalhau a Minhota, (fried with onions) … and all the recipes that your imagination suggests !