Cod stew with prawns! A "different" dish of sea flavors! Delicious!
Salt cod has been produced for at least 500 years, since the time of the European discoveries of the New World. Before refrigeration, there was a need to preserve the cod; drying and salting are ancient techniques to preserve nutrients and the process makes the cod tastier. More importantly, fish low in oils and fats allow for the drying and preservation process to occur: oils and fats prevent the salt water from preserving the fish. Cod fish have very low levels of oils, and most is located in the guts.
As strange as it may sound, the story of codfish is intimately connected with the history of Portugal. Behind this beautiful fish hides the story of a small country that was able to conquer the world to later become small again, rich in its fair size. To talk about codfish is to talk about family, dinners with friends, the Christmas eve; but it also to talk about the Portuguese discoveries, our long dictatorship, the 25th of April of 1974 (the day when it was finally over). It is a journey to our collective memories, that have been forgotten…….. I will try to recollect some of them..
Portuguese, Norman, Breton, and English fisherman were the first to adopt the salt-based curing technique from Basque fishermen in Newfoundland near the cod-rich Grand Banks by the late 1400s. By the 1700s, salted cod had become a staple food for ordinary Portuguese people and by upper levels of Portuguese society. With the advancements in freezing and transportation in the 1900s, salted cod from North America declined and Iceland and Norway became the major supplier of the salted fish to Portuguese markets. During this time bacalhau was a cheap source of protein and frequently consumed. Thus, bacalhau became a staple of the Portuguese cuisine, nicknamed Fiel Amigo (loyal friend). In fact, there is no word in Portuguese for fresh cod, it is instead called "fresh salt cod".
As cod was fished in such far away (and cold) waters, it was pickled in salt to withstand the long journey back home. The British Navy provided protection to the Portuguese fishing fleets in exchange for salt, an extremely valuable asset at the time, and that Portugal produced in large quantities.
Interestingly, cod fishing, which during the sixteenth century was dominated by Portuguese fleets, escaped our hands during the following centuries, virtually until the early twentieth century. Due to the adverse action of the British and Spanish fleets, and the indifference of the Portuguese crown (much more interested in the East), cod stopped being caught by Portuguese fleets, and started being supplied by Britain.
The beginning of the military dictatorship, in 1926, radically changed the situation. As meat was very expensive and with severe supply problems of fresh fish to the countryside, cod was a central ingredient of the diet of the working classes. It became a key issue for the regime, which initiated the so called “Cod Campaign”, aimed at boosting domestic production capacity, decreasing dependence on imports.
The entire operation was controlled by the State, which set prices, guaranteed a disciplined workforce (through coercive recruitment), provided cheap financing to ships owners and conditioned the imports of cod. In 1942 it implemented a refurbishment program of the cod fishing fleet, which went from 34 ships (1934) to 77 (1958). In just a few decades, more than 80% of cod consumption in Portugal was provided by domestic production.
I shall not be lured by the glorious aura of these men, though. As soon as they arrived to Newfoundland, they would start fishing in small boats called Dóris, which carried only one man. Sometimes apart of the main ship more than two miles, each solitary fisherman would fish for up to 8 / 10h, facing tremendous atmospheric conditions.
As a youngster I met two great men, friends of my father they had both worked in the cod fish fleets, starting at the tender age of 18 until they were 25 years old. Albino and Manuel originated from a village called Gafanha da Nazare from de Aveiro municipality in Portugal. They used to tell me stories regarding their experiences fishing on the so called “Doris” that gave me cold shivers. Vasco da Gama and his sailors did not have it has tough as these fishermen when they set of to discover the sea route to India.
Both of them were great cooks and they taught me how to cook today’s recipe. I send a big hug to their families, Albino and Manuel this is dedicated to you: