When I used to visit the Aveyron as a teenager I would dread the Friday lunch. The feeling would start around Wednesday and be at fever pitch by late Friday morning as we laid up the cafe tables and polished the glasses for lunch service. Every other memory of my time there is golden, except for this weekly ritual – salt cod – it was my very own Stock Fish Blues.
Over the years I would try salt cod in this way and that, from Croquetas in tapas bars, boiled or roasted whole pieces in the Portuguese way, Salt Fish and Ackee with Jamaican friends and others too - none were my conversion. Then came a fine creamy Brandade in Paris, followed closely a few months later by an elegant Baccala Mantecato in Venice – do read Arrigo Cipriani’s description of buying a salt cod smashing machine for 3,000,000 Lire – in his Harry’s Bar Cookbook (ISBN 1-85685-046-3). Theirs is reckoned to be the only one left in Venice.
Our boys think much the same about bacalau, so cooking salt cod has to be a celebration for Joy and me, with a fine dish apart made for the boys who share my early dislike for salt cod. How times change.
Our youngest once asked when we were going to buy live lobsters from the Chinese supermarket next – we know he doesn’t care for lobster, so why the question? It turns out we’d made him spare ribs one time we’d feasted on lobster for a birthday dinner – so when we’d be buying lobster again was a way of requesting spare ribs. At the price that’s charged for pork ribs in most supermarkets it’s not much more expensive to buy the live lobster – not so long ago butchers would throw the ribs away as unsaleable, then along came the Chinese and gave them value.
The Chinese did the same for the over-priced sea bass which was a fish that ranked way below its elevated status of today.
Shoulder better than Belly
Salt cod is different. The best that we eat today comes from Norway as the once abundant fishing grounds of Nova Scotia became depleted 20 or more years ago. Norway dries and salts the big cod and with bacalau, big fish is important because you want large flakes. Where there’s the choice I always buy the shoulder – the top piece just back along the top from the head – the tail section is usually tough as it works so hard and, from my experience, the belly is thin and miserable. Salt cod has no head.
The traditional rock hard boards of stockfish have rather given way to the gentler processing to be found in Italian salumeria’s around London. If salt cod is new to you, then ask advice – talk to Tony at Lina Stores (Brewer St, London W1), Antonio at Gennaro’s (Lewisham) – make these guys your kitchen buddies because they’ve lots to share about the cooking and traditions of their region. Don’t insult them by thinking they know all of Italy either – Italy remains fiercely regional and few Italians know or care for what happens outside their area.
Whenever I hear or see the words ‘Italian Cooking’ I want to scream at the ignorance of the writer who placed the words on the page – the same is true for ‘Spanish Cooking’. France is different because as essential to us Blue Collar Gastronauts as are the regions, there is a national cuisine that unifies the French – it’s perfectly fine to eat a Burgundian Coq au Vin in Castelnaudary as long as its made with a ‘coq’.
Yesterday we feasted on salt cod – Junior was sleeping over in the Brand’s Hatch paddock with bike racing team and Big Boy was fed slow cooked duck legs and lentils (thanks to an amazing offer in M&S on the legs).
The cod was soaked for three days with the water changed as frequently as we remembered. It was then brought from cold up to the boil, the white protein foam skimmed off and then very gently simmered for 10 minutes – removed, drained and left to cool and set. Once cool enough to handle, peel away the skin, remove the bones and carefully break into flakes – the more intact the flakes, the better the dish will eat.
Meanwhile red peppers were roasted, skinned and de-seeded – pepper skins are anathama to me – quite how anyone can eat a raw pepper is beyond my ken, but recipe books are full of recipes to do just that. Better still, the dullest Dutch hydroponic pepper transforms into a sweet, rich almost toffee-like taste when roasted. Whilst writing I also have a problem with yellow peppers that’s totally irrational – but I think they are fake.
Onions were rough chopped and sauteed – garlic is an option too. Potatoes are peeled, sliced and boiled in salted water dosed with EV olive oil. Now for the assembly.
Into a cazuela, layer as follows: the onions, the red peppers cut into think bands, the flakes of cod, slivers of roasted black ‘Greek’ olives (no stones please), quarters of hard boiled eggs and finally topped with the sliced, near cooked potatoes. More olive oil drizzled across the top – a horrid ‘foodie’ verb, but you get the technique.
Into the oven at 180C for 30 mins – turn occasionally to get an even colour on the potatoes. Allow to cool for 15 mins and enjoy – bread to mop up the enriched oil takes you further towards Blue Collar heaven.
I deliberately give no quantities as technique is what I want to share – with technique mastered, quantities will be what you have to hand, found in the market and wish to use up. Recipes prevent you learning technique – they are a safety net for those cautious in the kitchen – time to break lose and play. Become a Blue Collar Gastronaut and live.
The Portuguese say they have a bacalau preparation for every day of the year. To think that Friday’s in the Aveyron were so stressful in my teenage years. I could revert to eating salt cod in one form or another for every Friday I live from now on. I love the old-style Brandade in Brasserie Lipp (Paris), but on Friday’s their plat de jour is Tête de Veau so thoughts of fish flies out the window when I am lucky enough to be sitting in the back salon menu in hand.
Rich if Ugly History
This is a food with a rich, if ugly history. Salt fish (probably not cod) was the main food fed to the slaves being shipped across from West Africa to the Caribbean – hence salt fish and ackee is a national dish of Jamaica to this this day. Thanks to Rome, the Catholics have helped keep the Friday fish tradition alive – Canterbury isn’t bothered it seems. Let the Roman tradition last.