Salted cod, known as ‘baccala’ in Italian, is a fish that has enjoyed extreme popularity in much of the Mediterranean. You would think this fish that became such a staple food was available locally to those regions but actually cod has never been seen to swim those waters. This wonderful addition to Italian cuisine comes via a long history of travel, trade, and necessity.
Dried cod had been used by Viking sailors since the early Middle Ages. Their process of air-drying freshly caught cod in the cold and salty northern sea winds provided them with an easily transportable and highly nutritious food for long oceanic voyages.
It is said that in 1431, a Venetian merchant sailor named Captain Pietro Querini and a handful of survivors from his shipwrecked crew were rescued by Norwegian fishermen along the uninhabited rocky southern tip of Norway’s Lofoten islands. The fishermen welcomed the Italian sailors into their homes, fed them their traditional cod dishes and taught them the art of preserving this abundant fish. Querini returned to his homeland of Venice relaying his experiences and thoughts about this amazing commodity, ‘pesce stocco’ or ‘stoccofisso’ – stock fish.
However, we owe the conversion from stock fish to salted cod to the Basque (Spanish) sailors long before this. During their early contact with Viking sailors, they too realized the nutritional and commercial value of cod. Although this dried fish was already a popular trading commodity in Northern Europe, it didn’t become big business until large navies started in on the pursuit.The discovery of the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland that were teeming with cod combined with the depleting Mediterranean fish stocks made way for large scale fishing and trading. Cod became the most caught fish in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean countries became the largest consumers of salted cod.
Although the method of preserving with salt was not new to Italy, the mild white versatile flaky meat of cod was highly welcomed and an immediate love affair began with this fish. Since the Mediterranean was abundant in tradable goods such as fruit, wine, nuts, oils, and sugar they were positioned as a great trade partner. The port of Trapani in Sicily was essential in supplying the fleets of fishermen with salt they required to preserve their fish so it became an ideal trading point and a regularly found food in Italy.
As this fish continued gaining popularity, fleet after fleet headed to the northern waters without regard for the diminishing cod population. Over the centuries this caused some of the most popular cod varieties to enter a vulnerable state of existence and brought fishing villages to their knees. Fortunately, in more recent times, laws and legislation have been put into place to ensure the survival of this versatile fish. At this time of year especially, it is quite common to see salted cod at grocery stores and specialty fish stores to accommodate the various cultures that include salted cod dishes as part of their Christmas celebrations. This recipe is a typical southern Italian baccala recipe that is simple to make and will usually make its way onto the Christmas Eve dinner menu.
Salted cod can be purchased either boneless or with the bone in. Look for clean, white flesh that has a strong fish odour. The smell diminishes as it soaks and the longer the soaking period the more mild the flavour. It is completely safe to pinch off a little piece to taste for saltiness during the soaking period if you so desire. For ease of use and safety we suggest using the boneless salted cod. Using any salted cod in a recipe does require some advance preparation. First you need to rinse it with cold water for 10 minutes. Next, place it either as a whole filet or in large chunks into a large bowl and cover with fresh cold water. Depending on how intense a flavour and how salty you want it you will soak it for 12-48 hours. Change the water at least once a day but preferably 2-3 times.
Baccala with Tomato and Onion
Baccala, or salted cod, prepared with stewed tomatoes and onion. A classic Italian cod recipe.
- 1 kg boneless salted cod
- 2 medium cooking onions (+/- 2 cups large chunks)
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 litre canned tomato pieces
- 1 tsp chopped parsley
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ cup boiling water
- Prepare the salted cod by soaking 1-2 days in cold water, changing the water and rinsing at least once a day and preferably 2-3 times a day. . The longer you soak the salted cod the more mild the flavour will be when cooking.
- Chop the onions into large chunks.
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan.
- Fry the onions until they start to brown around the edges.
- Add the tomato pieces, parsley, and salt and cook covered for 15-18 minutes on medium heat until the tomatoes start to break down. Add the half cup of boiling water.
- Cut the rehydrated fish into 1 inch thick slices or large chunks and add to the pan.
- Keep the lid on and let cook for 15 minutes. After 10 minutes use a spoon to gently cover the fish with the stewed tomatoes. Remove the lid and cook for 5 more minutes.