This Fish Contains the Most Powerful Preservant: Nature...and It’s an Italian’s Favourite!
It is often said that Italy, thanks to its geographical location, is a country that has it all: tall mountains with ski centres and hiking routes, beautiful lakes, vast wine valleys and 7,500km of magnificent coastline. That means that Italians are very fond of seafood and fish in general, but there’s one curious fish that has been on top of Italians’ list for centuries. The marvellous Cod!
It’s called “merluzzo” in Italian when it’s freshly frozen, “stoccafisso” or stockfish when it’s air-dried and baccala when it’s salt cured. Cod is so popular in some Italian regions that, for example, in Naples, it is said that there are 365 different ways to prepare cod fish! In the Veneto region, the two most loved recipes for cod are the famous Baccala alla Vicentina and Baccala Mantecato.
From Vikings to Venice
By its origin, cod or stockfish is a Norwegian specialty and the story of stockfish is as old as time. As soon as the Vikings got curious about exploring and conquering the foreign lands, they realised that the food they were carrying on their boats would go bad before they even reached Britain. They wanted something that could feed the warriors and ship crews and at the same time remain in good quality and be nutritious. That’s how stockfish became the number one choice on the menu during their epic voyages. It is said that even the first European to discover America – a famous Viking Leif Eriksson had supplies of dried stockfish on his boat. And it’s easy to guess why it was such a perfect food for those adventurers: it doesn’t need to be stored in a cold place, it can even last for years and above all – it’s full of protein and vitamins and it is said that 1 kilo of stockfish is as beneficial as 5 kilo of fresh fish. It’s a good moment to wonder if Thor got his strength from eating stockfish!
But how did this Norwegian delicacy came from the cold northern islands straight to Italian plates?
Pietro Querini - a Venetian in the storm
At the beginning of the 15th century, the Republic of Venice reached the height of its power and wealth. The trade was booming and Venetians, being very good and experienced sailors traded with many countries. Captain Pietro Querini gathered the crew of 68 men and set his sails to Flanders to trade. But a terrible storm struck their merchant ship off the western coast of France, shattering it to pieces. Only 11 men out of 68 survived the harsh weather floating in small lifeboats until the strong Gulf Stream carried them all the way up to Lofoten islands on the northern shore of Norway. Stranded on a remote uninhabited sea shore, they survived on melted snow and fish for weeks until a local fisherman rescued them and took them to the village of Røst. There, they spent 3 months recovering and living like the locals which meant eating Torrfisk - specially dried cod. There was no doubt that Pietro Querini was delighted by the taste and decided to bring some samples back to Venice. In the following years, the import of dried codfish to all Italian states exploded and we can say that the unfortunate storm and Pietro Querini’s struggle to survive brought stockfish to Italy and, among others, the famous Baccala ala Vicentina was born.
The Secret Ingredient: Nature
The science behind the drying process might seem simple but actually, it is comprised of several steps that need to be perfectly executed. Many people knowledgeable of the process, claim that air-drying codfish is just as hard and complex as creating a good cognac or well-matured cheese.
The conditions have to be perfect. It means that climate must be cold, just above 0 degrees, not too humid, but not very dry either with the right amount of sun, wind and rain. As soon as it’s caught and transported to the land, the cod is hung up by special hooks installed in the open air and left to dry for 3 months – from February to May. That’s when the climate is the most suitable for achieving the deliciousness and unique meat texture. From that point on– Nature does all the work.
Stop by in six days, the stockfish will be ready
The important thing to remember about the preparation of stockfish is that it takes time! There’s no wonder Italians take their cod dinner so seriously. It demands patience and dedication, but the end result is so delicious that the extra effort is really worth it.
If you want to prepare baccala or stockfish, the first step is to find a good quality fish. The meat should be close to white colour, not yellowish. The smell might be intense for some people, but when the cooking is done the taste is pure heaven!
Since the drying process removes the water content from the fish, stockfish must be rehydrated before cooking. The stockfish or salted baccala must be washed off of any salt remaining on the skin and soaked in clean water at least 3 days before prior to cooking. The water where the fish is submerged should be changed 3 or more times during the day. Some Italian chefs say that if you really want to achieve exquisite taste, the fish should be soaked for 7 days before preparation.
For the preparation of the famous Baccala ala Vicentina, you’ll need to prepare the mixture of sardines, flour, onions, parsley, parmesan, milk and let the fish cook on very low heat for about 4½ hours. The patience really pays off!
We’ll leave you now to find the best recipes for this delicious and healthy fish. There are so many of them, we’re sure you’ll find the one that best suits your cooking style!