Cod or codfish in Portugal

Codfish is a significant icon of Portuguese gastronomy.

I do not know if there will be a tourist, minimally informed, that visiting Portugal does not know that.

From my own experience, there are a group of questions tourists ask more frequently. In that group, I highlighted three questions I am sharing here, and I also share my reflections about them:

– How is codfish consumed in Portugal, and which cod dishes are the most popular?

– Why do the Portuguese consume so much cod, and how did it all start?

– Is cod always served very salty?

As usually do in many other texts, you will have a mixture of personal opinions and shallow research in diverse literature in this text.

If you are interested, you can find the information sources “here”.

How is cod consumed in Portugal, and which cod dishes are the most popular?

When we speak of cod in gastronomy in Portugal, we refer to dry and salted cod.

It is also possible to find fresh codfish or, if you want, not dry and salted in Portugal. However, it can be proved not easy.

Possibly it will be hard to find where to buy fresh cod and it won’t be easy to find a Portuguese who have already tasted fresh cod in Portugal. It will be easier to find someone that tasted fresh cod during a trip to London.

As a rule, in Portugal, cod is bought dry and salted.

To prepare cod, first of all, we have to soak it in water for some time to rehydrate it and remove the salt.

Regarding how long we hydrate it, this will depend on several factors, one of which will matter most: each person’s opinion.

To give you an idea, depending on the cod slices’ thickness and what I want to cook, I will calculate a time between 24 to 48 hours. In that time, I will change the water every 12 hours.

As I said, opinions about the best ways to proceed will vary widely from person to person.

Finally, the codfish recipes are endless. There are even sayings in Portuguese that refer to the many different ways of cooking cod: 1001, 1000, 365, or 100 ways to cook cod, like “the 1001 ways of cooking cod”.

If you search for “ways to cook cod,” you will find several books in Portuguese with that title, varying a lot in the number of ways to prepare it.

It is difficult to say which are the most common or popular dishes, but allow me to share a list of dishes and a list of snacks that you can find in restaurants or bars:

Dishes: Cod cooked with chickpeas or boiled potatoes, cod “à lagareiro“, cod “à Braz“, cod “Gomes de Sá” way, cod with cream, cod baked in the oven, golden cod with Spanish sauce, “meia desfeita” of cod, …

Snacks:pastéis de bacalhau“, “pataniscas“, codfish pie, cod “rissóis“, …

Why do the Portuguese consume so much codfish, and how did it all start?

The reason why we consume so much cod is simple: for a long time, it has been a great way to get protein at a low price, also was easily preserved and thus easily transported to the interior of the country.

After the above mentioned, the million-dollar question is: how did all this start and continued, considering there is no cod in the Portuguese coastal waters?

The answer to the previous question needs a slightly longer explanation, and I ask your attention here, as it adds to the fact that part of the description is no longer applicable today, as you will learn at the end of the text.

Because the consumption of cod is not so frequent nowadays but mundane in this country, most Portuguese people do not remember to ask themselves how this habit started, so my brief research on the subject did not prove very easy.

I also admit that the answers I found may not be universal truths, but they gave me a possible explanation on the subject.

Before I start to share the explanation, allow me to highlight something that seems obvious: to eat dry and salted cod, we need cod, salt, and a way to dry it.

Obvious, right? Well, the explanation that follows will show why I wanted to highlight that fact.

A way to dry cod in Portugal

This is pretty obvious. Portugal has good weather, so there was never a shortage of areas where to dry cod.

Salt

Since the time of the Roman occupation – between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD – Portuguese salt has been perceived all over Europe as having a high quality.

At that time, salt was a rare product, in high demand, and very expensive.

It was so important that it became a bargaining chip and the word salary, as a regular payment for the provision of services, became from salt – sal = salt / salário = salary.

Along the Portuguese coast, countless salt flats have reached the present day.

The cod

Considering that there is no cod on the Portuguese coast, it is thought that the Portuguese had contact with dry and salted cod through trade with the Vikings during the 9th or 10th centuries.

We all know that Vikings were dedicated to looting, etc., but there were times when such activity became more commercial. 

However, being dependent on such merchants’ appearance on Portugal’s coast to obtain cod led to the possibility of creating Portugal’s fleet to go fishing this species in seas where it existed.

The oldest record we have on cod fishing is a treaty established with Duarte III of England that authorized a Portuguese fleet to fish for cod on the English coasts.

Portugal’s interest in the maritime expansion is well known, and Portuguese navigators’ achievements in the 15th and 16th centuries are known worldwide.

In 1424, a Portuguese family obtained a map that showed islands where allegedly there would be abundant cod fishing. 

These islands are today known as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Canada.

Thus, in 1424, Portuguese ships started to go to these islands, and they founded colonies.

From this fact results, at least two ideas that I would like to highlight here:

– this experience of navigation may well be the basis of the knowledge that was later necessary for the Portuguese to be such good navigators;

– the Portuguese arrived in the American continent long before Cristovão Colombo was born in 1451 and arrived in the American continent in October 1492.

Without a doubt, we could think of some more facts related to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia’s Portuguese colonies during the 15th century. Still, I will not elaborate on this subject and continue with the central theme.

In 1493, cod, dry and salted, was already so important in the Portuguese diet that the Portuguese king D. Manuel I, from 1506, created a tax on fishing from Terra Nova, Newfoundland.

For several reasons, among which one was the great attention the Portuguese gave to the maritime expansion in the 16th century, between the middle of the 16th century and the middle of the 19th century, the cod fishing from Terra Nova (Newfoundland) by the Portuguese, was suspended.

However, cod consumption in Portugal did not decrease. Cod was then fished mostly by the English fleet with whom the Portuguese always maintained close commercial proximity.

In the mid-nineteenth century, cod fishing in Newfoundland and Labrador caught the Portuguese’s attention and ships again and began to grow.

After a brief decline in the capture of cod during the First World War, in the twentieth century, due to protectionist and national development policies developed by the Estado Novo (*), from 1934, Salazar’s attention turned to cod fishing and Portugal’s autonomy in capturing this species.

The objectives of Salazer were clear:

– to reduce the Portuguese dependence of the English fleet on obtaining cod, strengthening the national capacity for capturing and processing cod and,

– to be able to supply cod to the population in an abundant manner and at affordable prices.

The Bacalhau (codfish) Campaign was launched, which encouraged and supported Portuguese shipowners and created compulsory forms of hiring / recruiting fishermen.

Initial Salazar’s objectives were achieved. However, with much effort and suffering, especially for the fishermen who participated in this activity.

If you are interested in knowing more about cod fishing, and how it was done at that time, I suggest watching the video here .

After the Carnation Revolution, on 25th April 1974, the democratic period started in Portugal. With these changes, we also saw a progressive increase in the price of cod.

Despite cod being a widely consumed product in Portugal, cod is considered an expensive fish and is not accessible as a mundane food. That is why it is prevalent on party/celebration days, such as Consoada’s (Christmas Eve) dinner.

Is cod always served very salty?

Cod should not be served too salty. When this happens, it is because it was poorly prepared.

I know it is a relatively strong statement that will always be subject to each one’s taste.

Still, special attention should be paid to the amount of salt perceived by those who will eat.

I think, with rare exceptions, it is a mistake to serve very salty cod.

After having being served a too salty codfish dish, one will hardly want to taste cod again. It will give you the wrong idea and block future possibilities of having excellent codfish experiences.

In our homes, where there are love and affection in food preparation, this rarely happens, and if it does, it is by mistake and not intentional.

Of course, there will be those who like salted food, and there is no harm in that. 

If it is not salted, salt can always add to taste. The opposite is not feasible.

I hope I gave you a more concrete idea about the importance of cod in Portuguese gastronomy and culture.

However, the best thing is to try a good dish of cod and then comment.

Enjoy your food.

David Monteiro

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