Portuguese cod, or bacalhau in Portuguese, holds a significant place in the country’s culinary tradition, especially at Christmas.
Bacalhau is salted dried codfish, that has been a staple in Portuguese cuisine for centuries.
The history of this culinary tradition is believed to date back to the Age of Discovery when Portuguese explorers ventured into the Atlantic and discovered rich cod fisheries off the coast of Newfoundland.
In the absence of refrigeration, preserving the cod fished became imperative leading to these age-old techniques of drying and salting.
These methods not only help to retain nutrients but also enhance the flavour of the fish. Significantly, fish with lower oil and fat content prove more conducive to the drying and preservation process, as oils and fats can hinder the salt’s ability to preserve the fish. Cod, with its minimal oil and fat levels in muscle tissue, primarily store these in its liver.
With the economic viability of salt, and its accessibility in Southern Europe, the cost-effective method of preserving fish in this way allowed it to be transported and stored for long periods, making it a crucial element in the Portuguese diet. Especially during Lent and “meatless” Fridays for Catholic countries.
Salted cod needs to undergo the process of rehydration and desalination before it is ready to be eaten. This involves soaking it in cold water for up to three days, with the water being changed two or three times a day.
It is said in Portugal that there are more than 365 ways to prepare cod, representing a different recipe for each day of the year.
There are numerous traditional Portuguese recipes featuring bacalhau, showcasing the versatility of this ingredient. Some popular dishes include Bacalhau à Brás (shredded cod with onions, potatoes and eggs), Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (cod with potatoes and onions), and Bacalhau à Lagareiro (cod roasted with garlic and olive oil).
Festivals and celebrations in Portugal often feature bacalhau dishes, Christmas is just such an opportunity. The traditional dish served is Bacalhau com Todos (cod fillets with everything ie various vegetables) however, regions differ in their favourite Christmas recipe and of course, families too.
Exploring cod at home
Interested in cooking with cod? Click here for some recipe suggestions. But don’t forget to rehydrate and remove the salt by soaking it in cold water prior to cooking.