Bacalhau: Portugal’s “faithful friend”

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codfishFor a country with abundant seafood right on its Atlantic doorstep, it can seem a bit wacky to a visitor that the Portuguese are obsessed with a fish not found in nearby waters, but thousands of miles away. Or that they wax nostalgic for salted fish when sublimely fresh is all around them. But it’s a fact: they do! Although we’d not previously been big fans of codfish, Tom and I have now tried bacalhau in numerous preparations, and are developing an appreciation for King Codfish as we travel around Portugal.

A centuries-long tradition

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Portugal’s geographic position at the margin of Europe looking out to the Atlantic has colored the national psyche, in ways not always obvious to a visitor. Perhaps the love of codfish is one of these?

Bacalhau (salt cod) has been a staple in Portugal since the fifteenth century, when the Portuguese began fishing off the coast of Newfoundland. Protein-rich, easy to transport and inexpensive due to its abundance in those days, it fed explorers during their voyages of discovery. The fiel amigo (faithful friend) of the navy and explorers became popular with countrymen back home, and for many Portuguese–perhaps most–cod remains the dish of nostalgia, when far from home.

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The Portuguese were the first to fish codfish in Newfoundland in the 15th century. Until recently, Portuguese fishermen spent months each year on treacherous North Atlantic seas in pursuit of cod, and far from their families and homes. This statue is on display in the Ílhavo Maritime Museum.
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A traveler has only to visit a supermarket to see the importance still placed upon salt cod by modern-day Portuguese.

Codfish on Portuguese tables everywhere

Bacalhau is omnipresent on Portuguese restaurant menus. Pastéis de bacalhau (mildly flavored codfish croquettes) are a popular appetizer, as are scallop or fritters of salt cod, lightly breaded and sautéed. Codfish is a traditional Christmas food, and there are countless variations on salads and casseroles made with cod. Portugal’s best chefs have honored tradition with their own, signature renditions of cod dishes, some using the techniques of molecular gastronomy. We have tried the lot, and here are a few of our favorites thus far.

Contemporary preparations

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At Salpoente in Aveiro, a marvelous “starter cod”, our hands-down favorite: smooth and light, served on a pepper puree, with cherry tomatoes, pimento padrón and shrimp. To accompany this flavorful plate, a Bairrada Vinho Tinto, 2010 Quinta das Bágeiras Colheita.
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Codfish salad is traditionally served alongside other seafood appetizers. At Salpoente in Aveiro, it comes as a standalone, artistic bite, in a simulated sardine can. I like ceviche and other tangy fish salads, and enjoy both presentations. This one takes the prize for looks!
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At Leopold in Lisbon, we enjoyed Codfish in the Clouds, a light, airy and flavorful appetizer from a playful menu that changes frequently.

Traditional preparations

codfishCodfish casseroles can be as heart-warming as any Minnesota “hot dish”.

We liked two dishes at Restaurant Abadia in Porto. One came topped with egg. The other, a formulation of the mayor of the city, was also made with potatoes and cheese, but dressed with black olives and a sprig of mint.

As an accompaniment to both dishes, we enjoyed an estate-bottled Casa de Santar Vinho Branco from the Dão region. A mellow Vinho Tinto would be just as good for these savory plates.

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At Restaurante da Pousada de Estremoz in Alentejo, cod comfort comes as a skillet preparation with pasta, sort of a frittata, deconstructed.
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Oven-baked cod at Dan José in Guimarães is enough for a table full of family or friends, its homely flavors ideal for sharing. Topped with bread crumbs, sides of potatoes and greens, this is the centerpiece of a hearty family-style meal.

Try this at home!

There are countless ways to prepare salt cod. Here, from Food52, one of my favorite kitchen resources, are some suggestions for storing and using salt cod at home.

If you go

If you love codfish, Portugal is your dream destination. But even if it’s not completely obvious to you what the fuss is all about, do give the national fish dish(es) a go. Millions of Portuguese cannot be wrong!

  • If you are not a fan, try codfish in a salad or casserole, and build enjoyment of flavor before tackling a “slab” of the fish.
  • Try cod in a lighter, contemporary preparation, where other ingredients share the limelight.
  • Learn more about cod and the importance of codfish to the cuisines of Portugal, Basque Spain and Venetian Italy. Start by checking out Fine Dining Lovers’ Codfish, bounty from the Vikings.
  • Visit the Ílhavo Maritime Museum in this coastal city a few kilometers from Aveiro. It tells the story of fishing on the high seas in Newfoundland and Greenland, and promotes preservation of Portugal’s marine traditions.
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If you are not into bathing and soaking your codfish, the folks in the renowned Portuguese fish conservation industry have a solution. Just add chopped onion and lemon juice, and call it salad!

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Our thanks to APTECE, Portugal’s Food Travel Association for bringing us to Portugal, and to the wonderful cooks who shared their codfish specialties with us!

To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here

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6 COMMENTS

  1. This post has given me quite the insight into bacalhau, about which I knew nothing. Thanks for illuminating its cultural importance, history and the role it plays in modern Portuguese cuisine. And great photos, as always!

    • Thanks for commenting, Aysha! Nice to have you along on our learning expedition…I enjoyed a codfish bite for breakfast this morning, so I guess you could say I am settling nicely into a Portuguese routine 🙂

  2. Glad to hear you’ve learned to love bacalhau – you’re definitely becoming more Portuguese with each visit 😉

    I think one of my favourite bacalhau dishes is bacalhau com broa, a hearty dish which is similar to the last one you featured. It’s usually baked on a bed of grelos (greens) and topped with cornbread crumbs.

    The only problem I’ve found with bacalhau is that despite its overwhelming (and frankly puzzling) popularity, it’s often too salty, having not been soaked and rinsed sufficiently.

  3. I missed the cod fish story during the Portugal Food Stories trip, it’s so great to learn about the history here. Enjoy the rest of your Portugal travels and please have a Pastéis de Belém for me!

    • Hi Jo, glad you enjoyed the bacalhau story, and happy we were able to meet briefly before you left Lisbon. Tom and I are loving being back in Portugal, and just this morning, had a Pastel de nata in your honor!

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