Very few species of fish on this earth can claim to have actually made the fortunes of a nation, but cod is no ordinary fish. It was the first years of the Carlist war (1833-39) and the Basque merchant José Mariá Gurtubay had ordered 30 "o" 40 sides of salt cod for his Bilbao store. The o was mistaken for a zero as opposed to an "or", and when the shipment arrived, it consisted of 30,040 sides of cod. Gurtubay feared himself ruined.
Just days later, however, Carlist troops laid siege to the city of Bilbao, holding her citizens prisoner. They survived largely thanks to the mix-up. Gurtubay got rich. And because Basque housewives had nothing else to eat, they invented a seemingly endless stream of new recipes for the fish, creating one of the most sophisticated cuisines in Spain while they were at it.
They may have been one of the nation's most fortuitous experiences of salt cod, but it was by no means its first. Norwegian stockfish (the difference between stockfish and salt cod is that stockfish is dried cod, as opposed to dried-salted cod), was important as far back as the 10th century. Basque whalers and the Spanish conquistadors both filled their ships with the nutritious, everlasting flesh of salted cod which sustained them as they discovered the rich fishing grounds of Newfoundland and eventually the great American continent. But it was only after these discoveries that Europeans began to seriously exploit this resource, with the Spanish, French and Portuguese heading the fleets and getting rich on the proceeds.
The Western Mediterranean, meanwhile, developed an incredible appetite for salt cod, or bacalao as it is known in Spain. It was the perfect food for a nation deeply entrenched in the policies of a dominant Catholic Church, where meat-free days were still observed. As the Catalan chef and author Domènec Moli famously pointed out: "Bacallà is, in our society, the only positive result of Lent."
Because it would be easily transported to all corners of the country and deep into mountainous regions without refrigeration, it was in many was the perfect culinary discovery. Even today, Spaniards from Seville to San Sebastian will tell you that salt cod is infinitely superior to its rather insipid fresh counterpart, while the neighbouring Portuguese consider it their 'fiel amigo' (faithful friend).
Politically, of course, fishing for cod has become a contentious issue, with intense and prolonged fighting over fishing rights on the one hand, and conservation concern on the other. When the Basques first started fishing cod in earnest (its low fat content made it more amenable to salting than the whale) the creatures could grow to as much as six feet long, and stocks on the Grand Banks were said to be such that the fishermen could walk across the seas on their backs. Today, stocks are alarmingly depleted—populations around New England, for example, have dropped by between 20 and 25 percent since 2002—and the US-based Ocean Conservancy says that "adopting stronger cod conservation measures is critical to ending overfishing and protecting the fishing communities that depend on them." Conservation measures already include a ban on fishing when cod are spawning, and the creation of no-trawling zones.
The Good Fish Guide published by the Marine Conservation Society in London (www.mcsuk.org), meanwhile, calls for 20 species of fish to be banned altogether from the table to ensure their survival. The first of those is Atlantic Cod where stock levels are now so low it is considered an endangered species everywhere except for the waters around Iceland. Icelandic Cod is OK for now. Arctic Cod is likewise considered "under threat", while Pacific Cod should be eaten with caution. Alternatively, look for organically-farmed cod, which is slowly emerging to take pressure off wild stocks.
In Spain, most of the salt cod eaten comes from Norway which exports three million kilos of the stuff a year. As a world leader in aqua-culture, cod farming here may become a major industry in the future.
For now, though, once you have waded through the quagmire of where your cod comes from and how it was caught. And if you still want to buy it, look for slabs of fish that have a creamy, or off-white colour and avoid anything with a yellowish tint. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the whole fish, the more flavourful it will be and the more positive ecologically since it will have had time to spawn. This isn't always easy to tell, but large lomo (back loin) steaks, for example, will nearly always have come from a bigger fish. You should buy it skin on, as this helps retain the shape during cooking.
The cod then needs at least 24 hours (up to 48 hours if it's a particularly big hunk of fish) soaking in cold, fresh water that should be changed at least three times a day. It is also suggested for getting rid of the last residue of salt that the last two hour's soaking time should be done in warm water or milk. The only way to really know whether the salt is removed or not is tot taste a little bit raw.
Of the infinite recipes available for bacalao, the following provide a good introduction to cooking with it, and have been enthusiastically adapted from Barcelona to Mexico, cropping up everywhere from home hearts to three-star kitchens. One of the oldest Basque recipes is zurrukutuna—creamed bacalao—and though you rarely see it today, the modern equivalent of salt-cod brandade is a delicious fish paté used for stuffing sweet pimientos piquillos and to spread on toast. Bacalao pil pil at its best is a piquant emulsion formed from the gelatine inherent in the cod mixed with oil, garlic and onions. Bacalao a la Vizcaína comprises a warming dish of nyora peppers, Iberian jamón and bacon; while esquiexada, is the most classic of Catalan salads. Bon profit.
Recipes: Bacalao a la Vizcaína...
Desalinate 600g of bacalao overnight, changing the water at least four times. During the last hour steep in warm water adding 8 dried nyora peppers. Drain the fish and pat dry with kitchen paper. Remove the peppers, split in half and scrape out the pulp using knife. Discard the skins. Remove any bones from the fish and cut into 1 inch chunks. Lightly season with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Fry the cod in 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a terracotta casera until opaque (about 5 minutes). Remove the fish and reserve the oil. Add 4 cloves of garlic and 3 onions (both finely chopped), together with 100g diced bacon and 100g diced jamón Iberico to the oil and fry until golden. Add the pulp of the nyora peppers, 1 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs, 2 tbsp chopped parsley and a bay leaf. Season with black pepper and one-half tsp. cayenne pepper. Add one-quarter litre fish stock and simmer for 40 minutes or so,adding a little more water if it starts to get to dry. When the sauce is thickened add the salt cod (skin side down) and remove the entire dish to an oven heated to 175° for 15 minutes. Serve directly from the casera.
...and Brandade de Bacalao
Mix 500g desalted, de-boned and de-skinned bacalao that has been poached and flaked, with 1kg of mashed potatoes. Stir in 4 cloves of crushed garlic. Add 250 ml good quality olive oil bit by bit until the pate has a coarse, stiff consistency. Season with salt and pepper and serve on hot toast.