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Portugal nowadays catches only a small amount of codfish annually but imports huge amounts (especially from Norway), sometimes already salted, sometimes not.

Salted cod or bacalhau is a very common dish in whole Portugal and it is said that there exists at least one recipe for each day of the year. In the supermarkets it is a very common sight as well:

enter image description here Wikipedia

What is the historical context of eating cod, and especially salted cod? And why so much? The Spaniard's favorite fish seems to be hake nowadays, why do the Portuguese still stick with this elaborated preparation of this fish?

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If you think the Portuguese are obsessed with salted cod, wait until you meet a Greek ;) And if I'm not horribly mistaken, it's also the "national dish" of Jamaica. –  Yannis Rizos Apr 11 '13 at 21:59
    
But are the Portuguese really still being faithful to their faithful friend? This anecdotal report suggests otherwise: "Interestingly, since my residency, I’ve only partaken a handful times over the past year. Why? Because very few Portuguese [continued] –  Eugene Seidel May 31 '13 at 12:58
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[cont'd] I’ve met seem to like it! From young to old, there are those who downright detest Bacalhau, while others will just eat it out of tradition (or more like obligation) on holidays. I’ve had mothers and grandmothers prepare Bacalhau for a gathering, but fail to partake in their own creations; whereby leaving me with the delicious leftovers. It’s the American version of the Christmas fruitcake that nobody wants!" –  Eugene Seidel May 31 '13 at 12:59
    
If you think the greek are obsessed with dried fish, wait until meet an icelander. And so on. –  Lennart Regebro Dec 10 '13 at 7:47
    
Also: Loads of local delicacies and traditional foods have their basis in ways of preserving food so it doesn't go bad. This is especially true for foods eaten during off-season holidays. Such as Swedish pickled herring, lutfisk, knäckebröd, surströmming, gravad lax and probably even more traditional Christmas food that I forgot about now. –  Lennart Regebro Dec 10 '13 at 7:50

5 Answers 5

As an answer to the very passionate Greek: you may love cod, but per capita, we eat the most of any country in the world. By miles. So don't try to compare to us. Just don't.

As an answer to the gentleman who thinks that tradition is on its way "out the door": with whom exactly have you been socializing?? Matriarchs who don't eat their cod? Younger people who don't really eat it unless for tradition's sake? Are you demented?? EVERYONE loves it. Young and old. You just had a freakish experience. Sorry. Not normal AT ALL. Your account of our cod eating habits is totally incorrect and you are talking of things you don't know.

As an answer to the very surprised gentleman who thinks we should do as the Spaniards and just eat Hake: we DO eat hake, and grouper, and sardines, and many other varieties of fish. Fresh. Mostly in steaks (not so much filleted, as we learn the art of removing fish bones when we are about 5 or 6, and we love boiled fish - that holds its shape much better with the bones in it). And we LOVE them!

However, the process of salting the cod imparts a very special flavour to it. Not to mention leaving it with a wonderful natural lubricant, akin to very thin mucus (sorry) between each flake - thus the importance of the size of the cod. The bigger, the bigger the steaks, the more lubrication between flakes, which makes the cod heavenly to put in the mouth. And the flakes are left.... firm, not so much like fresh fish that just disintegrates under your fork. Which makes it the ideal fish to manipulate into the many hundreds of dishes that are not made from whole steaks.

It's hard to explain, but we are not mad - we import a fish from abroad, and pay good money for it - but there's good reason. I guess you can only really understand it when you have a beautiful piece of cod in front of you, cooked with the best Portuguese olive oil, olives, onion, bay and eventually tomatoes or other additions. There's only one thing that can never be amiss: the majestic GARLIC. Without it, no cod recipe will ever come to heavenly concert in your mouth.

Hope that was helpful in understanding our obsession with cod. We have a very rich culinary tradition, are very good cooks and love to eat - therefore, believe me when I say that if we go to the trouble, it's DEFINITELY worth it. :-) Regards, Marta

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The history of salted codfish consumption in nowadays Portugal was apparently introduced by the Norway Vikings during the IX-Xth centuries. Vila do Conde in northern Portugal was a Viking colony and it was from there that the first cod fisheries in the Norwegian seas set sail. This techniques for the conservation of fish by salting were long used by the Scandinavians in their voyages through the Atlantic and to Russia for discoveries, assault and commerce. Some 500 years later we used this same salted fish in our discoveries era. The salted cod became very popular in the XIXth and XXth century because we went to Norway and to Terra Nova to fish it in large quantities. Today we have to import it because the owners of those territorial waters prefer to fish it and sell it to us instead of selling us fishing authorizations.

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Using salt as a food preservative was ancient (at least) a thousand year before the Vikings. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 9 '13 at 23:14

Being portuguese myself, I can answer from memory what we've learned from history lessons and popular knowledge.

Living on a maritime-driven country, the Portuguese people always consumed large amounts of fish. Bear in mind most coastal fishing is restrained to smaller-sized specimens - the large specimens were more expensive; and to catch big fish, you need to travel further away from the coast. If you travel very far, you need to preserve the fish during the return voyage. Salting was the most common method at the time to preserve fish.

Cod was special in two key points:
- It was a big fish that could be caught in large numbers. Up until almost the end of the 20th century cod was plentiful and there were large cod fisheries in the northern atlantic. Thus, cod was a fish that could feed a lot of people and was easily affordable.
- Salted cod is tastier than other salted fish species that can be caught in the same area. The Portuguese dried and salted numerous other species before turning to cod as their main focus. The discovery of large cod fishery areas near Newfoundland in the 15th century was the main turning point. It became the main fishing area of Portuguese fishermen in the centuries to come.

With time, eating cod became part of the Portuguese way of life. There are hundreds - maybe even thousands - of different ways to prepare salted codfish in Portugal. Most Portuguese people get used to eating it since a very early age. It's the traditional Christmas eve main dish in most of the portuguese territory, for instance. Portuguese people take it as far as considering a cultural statement - part of being Portuguese is liking and eating codfish regularly.

With the 20th century new international laws came and most Portuguese fishermen were driven out of the traditional fishing areas, Portugal nowadays depending mostly on Norwegian and Icelandic codfish to meet the demands. Cod became a luxury dish on the turn of the 21st century, being somewhat expensive now (but not prohibitive). Also, most cod fishing areas became depleted due to overfishing and bad practices, thus also driving the prices up. It's still part of the Portuguese cultural legacy, though.

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Interesting how important the Newfoundland cod fisheries are in history. In my reasearch on this question yesterday, it turned out one of the big bones of contention for the treaties ending the American Revolutionary War was how the (formerly British) US fishermen would be accounted for in the varioius international agreements governing access to the Newfoundland fisheries. –  T.E.D. Jun 19 '13 at 15:46
    
Welcome to History.SE, aenariel! +1 for a great answer! –  Gwenn Jun 19 '13 at 18:01

The only fish many people knew in Spain and Portugal until very late in the 20th century was cod. Salted, it was carried in mules by peddlers and hanged in shops, right by the ham, where it could stay for months if needed. That gave way to lots of different dishes, including salted cod salad (with orange, olives and onion) which we still taste in Granada, for instance (which is not so far from the sea, but fish couldn't be transported daily from the coast until there was a proper road to do it).

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The Wikipedia page has a bit of history for you. Remember that the freezer was invented first in the beginning of the 20th century, so before that, salt was a highly important (and expensive) commodity. Everything had to be salted in order to be transported inland. Cod is a good fish because it is lean – fat will get rancid. In the Northern Europe however, the Hansa traded a lot with salted herring (which is about as fat as salmon), but in barrels.

Also, of course, the Catholics in Europe weren't allowed to eat meat on fridays.

As to why they still stick with it I can only guess they've gotten a taste for it with the years!

(My source of information is Mark Kurlansky's book Salt, which I can recommend. He's also written a book (actually a biography, as he calls it) of cod, titled ... Cod.)

Salting cod in Newfoundland in the 1700s.

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Thanks for the recommendation, I'm writing a story set in the medieval times with salt being a highly important prop and I may found there something interesting for me. –  Darek Wędrychowski Apr 12 '13 at 10:01
    
another part of the explanation (and related) is that Portugal has a long history of long sea voyages, which would require a good amount each of salted or otherwise (smoking and drying work too) food for the crews. Bakkeljauw (the original term is probably Dutch) is easy to store as it's flat, lasts a long time as it's dried and salted, and could even be made during a trip by catching and salting fresh fish. –  jwenting Apr 12 '13 at 10:34
    
Thanks for the answer and for the interesting bit from @jwenting however I still don't understand why they still stick to it while Spain was more or less in the same condition (long sea journeys), plus the Basque people were main cod producers in the past. I actually read Mark Kurlansky's book about cod a while back. I'll reread it for more information .. –  Stockfisch May 31 '13 at 11:11
    
Interesting image, size of cod is quite impressive. I also agree with the Mark Kurlansky's book about cod - very readable account of importance of the fish in European history. Hopefully, Newfoundland waters closed for cod fishing since 1992 by Canadian government due to depletion of stocks, would recover so cod would become as common as it used to be before practice of trawling devastated marine fauna. –  Anvar Jun 2 '13 at 6:11

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