For as long as I can remember I have been extolling my personal proclivity towards devouring, with gusto, dead animals. I’m the biggest animal lover I know, well, one of them, but I’m still a Homo sapiens who adores being an omnivore. Meat, seafood, vegetables, fungi, pickled things, fermented things, raw things, braised things, boiled, battered, fried, poached, coddled, I’ll eat anything. But, in the big war of fish vs meat, I’d always choose meat. Always; but perhaps with the exception of bacalao (en salazón) – salt cod.
Some people get befuddled with bacalao and their thoughts might drift towards Portugal and its famous hunks of bacalhau (sometimes fresh, sometimes dried) cooked in cream sauces or oven-baked with potatoes, peppers and olives. Fans of the Grand Tour might think about Italy and its delightful baccalà or France’s creamy brandade.
But this is a blog about Spain, and the Spanish, as per usual with a lot of their ingredients, go crazy for bacalao in a way that other countries perhaps don’t. So, let’s meet bacalao.
The Mediterranean has the sturdy ice-clad Vikings to thank for the ubiquity of their bacalao. Norwegians travelling to Iceland, Greenland and Canada, had perfected the art of drying – wind, sun, cold temperatures – to make their fish last longer on those long and perilous journeys. But it was in the Basque Country, and the Med, that the technique of curing cod could be assigned salt. There was a lot of salt.
Basque fishermen were, and still are, some of the hardiest in the world and they travelled far and wide just for cod. They would salt the fish they caught there and then on the boats and in the ports they visited. Bacalao became intertwined with the fabric of Basque culinary culture and by the 16th century had started to spread throughout Spain.
It was a way that even the poorest and most distant peoples of the country – from Las Hurdes to the Júcar valley, from the depths of the Maestrazgo to the Maragatería – could get a protein, rehydrate it, and have ‘fresh’ produce. Also, this being a Catholic country, it meant that people could deal better with Fridays and Lent as apparently the deity in the sky wasn’t so keen on them eating meat.
During the Second Carlist War it even saved lives. In 1871 a fisherman from Bilbao called Gurturbay put in an order of ‘30 o 40’ cod from Norway. ‘O’ meaning ‘or’ in Spanish. Unfortunately the Norwegians read this as 30,040 fish. The poor man thought he was ruined, but then when the war started Bilbao was cut off and there was only codfish, his fish, to feed the inhabitants.
Even though bacalao is a Basque obsession – and in this case Basque can include neighbouring Navarra – it is also firmly rooted in Catalonia and Madrid and can be eaten anywhere in the country.
The process is simple but a bit of a hassle. I usually don’t buy bacalao in its salted form; I’ll eat it out or buy it ready rehydrated. But it’s worth stating how one goes about dealing with the beast.
Spanish salt cod is cured quite gently. The fish are kept in big barrels of salt for a few months, which lends them their famously soft and luscious texture and lightly sea-breezy flavour. Less meaty than Portuguese bacalhau, where there is air-drying involved.
Once dried you end up with an unappealing and pale-coloured block that looks a little like Kendal Mint Cake crossed with a fillet of fish.
When you are ready to eat it you have to ‘revitalise’ it with water. It’s very poetic if you think about it. The pieces are put into cold water, which must be kept cold, for 12-36 hours depending on the size. A few times throughout the process the water must be changed so that the desalination and rehydration can continue.
What you are left with is a juicy piece of fish that can be eaten as is – it’s very nice sprinkled with simple toppings like capers and extra virgin olive oil, honey mustard dressing, lemon and black pepper – or cooked and grilled in fillet chunks called tacos and served with vegetables and sauces.
Other common dishes or ways of serving include the following:
Brandada de bacalao – dip-consistency paste of cod mixed with oil, garlic, milk, potato or bread, seasoning, maybe spices etc. (A similar variant exists called atascaburras, which contains nuts.)
Tajada de bacalao – a battered fish n’ chips-style chunk of cod.
Croqueta de bacalao
Ajoarriero – cooked up with tomatoes, garlic and vegetables.
Bacalao al pil pil – cooked in a clay pot with garlic, oil and chilli.
Bacalao al horno/a la sal – oven roast (or salt roast) cod.
Bacalao a la vizcaína – cooked in a sauce of onion, garlic, parsley and red peppers.
Bacallà a la llauna – lightly floured and fried then baked with garlic, paprika and parsley, and white wine.
Esqueixada – a refreshing salad of cod, tomatoes, peppers, olives, onion and vinaigrette.
Remojón granadino – salad of cod, orange, spring onion, olives and vinaigrette.
This being simply a piece of fish, there are of course myriad ways of cooking it and serving it, but the above dishes are more established parts of the gastronomy.
Where I eat:
Madrid – Casa Revuelta (Calle Latoneros, 3), Casa Labra (Calle Tetuán, 12), Mercado de San Antón: La Casa del Bacalao stand (Calle Augusto Figueroa, 24), Bodegas Rosell (General Lacy, 14), Mesón del Bacalao (Calle Reloj, 16).
Alcalá del Júcar – Casa el Moli (Paseo de los Robles, 7).
Pamplona – El Gaucho (Calle Espoz y Mina, 7), Chesly (Calle Iturrama, 20).
Bilbao – Zuluaga Jatetxea (Calle San Mames, 22).
What I drink with it:
Without doubt the best thing to pair with the juicy soft and salty flavour of bacalao is a nice small and creamily poured caña beer.
What I listen to:
Trust the Sun – Elbow