The story of bacalao, Norway’s most foreign dish, is the story of the cod we sent abroad until it sailed back to us on a Spanish ship.
My father was captain on a fishing boat. Since he was a young man he travelled the Northern seas in search of haddock, coalfish, halibut, shrimps but above all cod. He travelled all the way to Greenland and could be away for as much as three months. When he came home we had a feast of the finest fish, even our cat fed on first-rate cod.
The fish was either fried or poached and mainly served with boiled potatoes and carrots (boiled or shredded), melted butter or a dollop of sour cream. My mother would also make large batches of fishcakes and fishballs, the northern equivalent to meatballs. Occasionally we ate cod that had been dried for two weeks, boknafisk, this time served with creamy carrots.
The most coveted of all fishmeals was “mølje”
Mølje (or “mølja” up North) consisted of poached cod, so fresh it curled on the plate served with its liver and roe (in its pouch), crispbread and potatoes. A similar dish is also found in Iceland, hrogn og lifer. In the summer cod was replaced with coalfish – the result of late evening fishing trips in the ever-bright Northern summer, and devoured in the early hours of the next day. How we ate our cod was quite limited. With potatoes and carrots. And most important of all, it should be fresh.
Maybe it was the bounty of fresh fish and the fact that we lived along the coast of Norway combined with a traditional approach to food that excluded dried cod from reaching our dinner table? This was also the manner in many other Norwegian homes. But in other parts of the world, especially Brazil and Portugal, dry cod is regarded with affection.
The miracle of salt cod
In Brazil and Portugal salt cod (bacalhau) is staple food and just as important for Christmas as the turkey is on Thanksgiving. It is also eaten in Italy (baccalà). A common supermarket in Portugal is teeming with different types of salt cod, and both countries have a great variety of dishes using salt cod ranging from fritters such as bolinhos to stews.
Since the 18th century Norway has exported great amounts of salt cod and even before that stockfish (dry unsalted cod) was a major commodity from the time of the Vikings. Salt cod gained popularity in Catholic countries like Spain and Portugal as days of fasting required a meat-free diet, it was affordable food and extremely smart food as it defies the laws of decay.
Drying is one of the oldest methods of food conservation and results in a fish extremely rich in protein and with durability that makes it possible to be transported to the end of the world. Soaking the cod in water for a few days brings its freshness back as if it was just dragged off a fishing boat. This is the miracle of salt cod. It is a miracle fish but to us it has been more of an economic miracle than a gastronomical one.
Where salt cod comes from
The epicentre of salt cod production in Norway is the Northwestern region and two small towns, Kristiansund and Ålesund. From the onset people here had an entrepreneurial spirit and went north to participate at the biggest migration of cod in Norway, the Lofotfiske. They sailed home to the Northwest coast in their small boats filled with salt cod.
The sociologist Eilert Sundt described in the19th century fishers from the Northwest coast as frugal. Whereas fishers from the north would feast on the best parts of the cod once home, north westerners would only allow themselves to eat the cod’s head. The would not eat money! The rest of the fish they would salt and dry. Traditionally salt cod was laid out to dry along the seashore, a laborious method that now is replaced by indoor halls. Still, making salt cod requires the skills and love of an artisan.
Today there are many companies making dry cod in Ålesund. One of them has been in business since 1923 and is situated at the little Borgund Fjord outside Ålesund. For three generations, Dybvik, a family-run company has produced salt cod. Several of their products are labelled “Spesialitet”, meaning speciality, a Norwegian label given to quality products with a unique flavour.
The process of making salt cod requires the fish to first be gutted, washed and split to the tail. Then the split cod is generously salted and stacked for 2–3 weeks before it is dried indoors. The salt and drying imparts a unique flavour and texture to the cod akin to curing. In Portuguese supermarkets whole cods are on sale, but in Norway it is common to sell chunks of salt cod. Dybvik offers a range of salt cod products, the most exclusive feature the prime cuts – the beefy loins.
Bacalao – our most foreign dish
While countries such as Portugal, Brazil and Italy have a rich culinary tradition of eating salt cod (although Italy has a stronger love affair with dry cod, stoccafisso), Norwegians mostly eat cod in a tomato stew called bacalao. Bacalao is one of the most unique dishes on our table.
Norwegian bacalao has a list of ingredients foreign to our kitchen. It is made with garlic, chilli, paprika, olives, tomatoes, olive oil (and potatoes). The only native ingredient is salt cod. Thus, when my mother eats bacalao it is the only time she voluntarily tucks into garlic and chilli. The foreign name of the dish reveals its history. Bacalao means cod in Spanish, and the inspiration for the dish came to us through the salt cod export to Spain as Spanish boats harboured in the towns of Kristiansund and Ålesund in the 19th century.
When bacalao first appeared in a Norwegian cookbook in 1893 it advised readers to replace the garlic with shallots to avoid an unpleasant taste. Since that time we have grown so accustomed to garlic and chilli, salt cod is the most exotic ingredient today. The miracle cod does not deserve that destiny. I want to let my home smell of the salty sea, they way homes in Portugal and Brazil so often do. This is an homage to salt cod, a Norwegian bacalao to match the finest Christmas meal.
Salt cod stew, bacalao (makes 4)
The most important thing to remember when using salt cod is to soak (and rinse) it in water the right amount of time, often about two days. Follow the instructions on the package. Soaking rehydrates the fish and washes away the salinity. Also remember to cook the potatoes until tender. You can probably buy salt cod from an Italian or Portuguese grocery, or buy online from Dybvik.
500 g salt cod
150 ml olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1 red chilli
2 tins chopped quality tomato, e.g. Mutti
16 small waxy potatoes (not floury) or 10 medium-sized
½ glass pimientos del piquillo (optional)
a handful of black olives such as kalamata
a handful of flat-leaf parsley
sour cream (or aioli) to serve
1. Soak the salt cod according to package instructions, usually about two days with exchange of water twice a day. Saveur has described the process more closely.
2. Finely chop the garlic and chilli. Add the olive oil to a wide frying pan and gently fry for 2 minutes.
3. Peel the shallots and divide into two. Fry for 5 minutes with the garlic and chilli while you shake the pan from time to time.
4. Add the tomatoes and boil gently with the lid on.
5. Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and divide the small potatoes into two (and medium-sized into three). Add to the pan and continue boiling for 1 hour, still with the lid on. Make sure the potatoes are covered in sauce.
6. When the potatoes are almost done, add the sliced dry cod. It is better to add the fish later, than sooner. Continue boiling gently for about 15 to 20 minutes.
7. When 5 minutes remain, add the pimiento and olives.
8. Adjust the seasoning with pepper and scatter chopped parsley. Serve with crusty bread and aioli, or sour cream for a Nordic twist.
“Spesialitet”, meaning speciality, is a Norwegian label given to quality products with a unique flavour produced with local ingredients and/or according to a local recipe. The label is initiated by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture as a way to promote unique artisanal products. This article is part of a series of articles I write for Matmerk, the foundation that runs the label.