In praise of salt cod

I didn’t really know anything about salt cod, apart from the obvious cod-that- is-preserved-in-salt, until I moved to Italy, which is five years ago now, time it seems does fly.

I had seen salt cod in London, stiff, salt crusted, mysterious and rather foreign behind the glass counters of Portuguese, Spanish and Italian delicatessens, and our local Jamaican minimarket in Hackney – known affectionately as the bong – often had a heap of ‘saltfish’. But I have to admit I screwed my face up, declared it peculiar, quite ugly, odd smelling and then thought no more about it.

I must have been in Rome about a year when it finally dawned on me; the Baccalà al’ agro dolce I’d eaten and loved in our local trattoria (Bucatino in Via luca della Robbia, a rowdy, boisterously good, no-nonsense Roman eatery thats worth making a note of for your next trip to Rome); the sublime filetti di baccalà, plump fish fillets, battered and deep fried from the venerable fry shop of the same name just off Campo de ‘Fiori (another note worthy address); the curious white fillets of baccalà desalinating in the vast water-filled tubs standing brim full outside shops and market stalls; the scent of baccalà that curled up the communal staircase on Fridays, the traditional day to eat fish in Rome, they were all salt cod. Baccalà was not – as I first thought – simply cod, it was salt cod. The curious and delicious fish I’d fallen in love with in Rome was the mysterious and peculiar specimen I had turned my nose up at for all those years.

For those of you who don’t know, salt cod – the Italian Baccalà,  Spanish bacalao, Portuguese bacalhau and French morue – is fresh codfish which has been split lengthways, heavily salted and then partially dried to preserve it. The best salt cod comes from the Lofoten Isles in Norway where a whole industry and way of life has grown up around the fishing, salting and drying of cod. Salt cod has a long and complicated history, it dates back to medieval times and the earliest methods of preserving food under salt. To really understand the deep significance of salt cod would be to really understand the history of codfish, of salt, of international trade and politics; the history and power of the Roman catholic church and it’s days of abstinence; the discovery, exploration and exploitation of the new world; the dark story of slavery and colonisation. Mark Kurlansky tells this story beautifully in his book Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world.

Back in Rome, having discovered that I didn’t just like but adored salt cod, I began buying it. Vincenzo was most supportive of my experimentation ‘va benissimo‘ he said ‘è la mia pesce preferita (favourite fish)‘ and did that rather quaint Italian gesture of food approval, the one where you put your index finger to your cheek and twist.

Now, if the first hurdle with salt cod is it’s odd appearance and particular smell, the second hurdle is the soaking, ah yes, the soaking. Salt cod can only be used after having been soaked in frequent changes of fresh water for at least 18 hours in order to soften the flesh and remove the salt, umm, roll eyes. And there’s more, a third hurdle, mastering the soaking, it takes practice, too short and the salt cod is tough as old boots and very salty, too long and it’s tasteless and wooly, rather like a wet jumper. Are you still with me? This process and practice puts salt cod firmly in the slow food category, but that’s a good thing isn’t it ? Aren’t we all trying to embrace more slow food ?  Yes, soaking is a bit of a fuss, especially the first time, but then you discover the intriguingly delicious nature of salt cod and the mild palava of soaking feels utterly worthwhile.

Salt cod has many of the characteristics of fresh cod, large, soft flakes of succulent, opaque flesh which like all good fish, reeks of the sea. It also has other qualities, an extraordinary texture from the salting, the flesh is firmer and has slightly chewy, toothsome quality, soaked properly salt cod is beautifully seasoned with a pleasingly pungent taste.

The Italians, like the Portuguese and the Spanish are passionate enthusiasts of salt cod and have evolved marvelous ways to cook it. Baccalà al’agro dolce is salt cod, bright with tomatoes, cooked in wine and vinegar moderated with sugar and flavoured with red pepper, pine nuts and sultana’s; Baccalà alla pizzaiola from Naples is salt cod covered with tomatoes, breadcrumbs, capers, plenty of oregano and baked in the oven; the delicious Baccalà all vientina, salt cod on a bed of onions slowly softened in olive oil, covered with milk and then baked in a very low oven for about two hours; Filetti di baccalà, which I have already mentioned, plump pieces of salt cod, dipped in batter, fried until crusty-coated outside and succulent within.

There are dozens of salt cod recipes I would like to tell you about – many of them come from Vincenzo’s Mum Carmela who is a quiet master of soaking and cooking baccalà – but I fear this post is starting to feel as long as the soaking required for a big fat piece of salt cod. Therefore, I have chosen just one, my favourite. Its not just my favourite recipe for baccalà, it’s an all time favourite recipe and one of my preferred things to eat, brandade di morue.

Brandade di morue is a heavenly invention, a creamy white purèe of salt cod, potato, olive oil and milk flavoured with lemon juice and garlic. It’s a speciality of the city of Nimes in the Languedoc province of France called but the origins of this recipe are probably Italian as it is very similar to the Venetian baccalà mantecata as described by the wonderful Gillian Riley.

‘Soaked baccalà is pounded with a little garlic and olive oil in a pestle and mortar to make a smooth thick paste; this is transferred to a pot and beaten with a wooden spoon, gradually adding a light olive oil drop by drop until the fish has taken up what it can handle, which can sometimes be diluted in the process with warm milk, to make a light and pungent cream’

This is one of our favourite suppers, we open a bottle of Pieropan Soave, tip some black olives in a bowl, make a big pile of toast or fry little triangles of bread in olive oil, then we sit scooping up the warm, creamy pureè and telling each other how much we like brandade.

Salt cod can seem difficult to find, have patience, it is probably hiding behind the counter at your local Portuguese, Spanish or Italian delicatessen. Look for a nice piece of cod from a center cut where the fish is thickest and at its most succulent.

I’ve got into the habit, as is so often the case, of following Simon Hopkinson’s recipe for brandade di morue because it works so beautifully.

Brandade de Morue or cream of salt cod

Adapted from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast chicken and other stories

  • A large potato (roughly 175g /6 oz) peeled and cut into large chunks
  • salt
  • 200ml/7fl oz good quality olive oil
  • 200ml/7 fl oz whole milk
  • 3 cloves garlic peeled and crushed
  • 450g/1llb salt cod fillet soaked, drained and boned
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • black pepper

Boil the potato in salted water until cooked, drain ( I put the potato back in the empty pan and back on a low flame for a few seconds so the water still clinging to the potato evaporates.) mash, rice or mouli the potato while it is still hot and then keep it warm.

Put the milk and crushed garlic in small pan over a low flame and very gently heat until only just warm but not hot.

Heat the olive oil gently in a small pan, it must remain tepid or the oil will disintegrate and ruin the whole preparation

Put the cod in a saucepan of cold water, bring to the boil, then switch of the heat. leave for 5 minutes, then using a slotted spoon remove the cod to a plate. Take off the skin and pick out any bones, flake the fish and then put it in a food processor.

With the motor running, alternately add the olive oil and the garlicky milk until you have a thick a thick, gloopy paste the consistency of thick cream. This can be done by hand, crushing the fish with the back of a wooden spoon and then adding the oil and milk very gradually and alternately and stirring vigorously with great patience and considerable energy.

Turn the mixture into a bowl and then beat in the mashed potato using a wooden spoon, not too much or the mixture will go Gluey. Stir in the lemon juice and black pepper, taste, add salt if necessary.

Transfer to a serving dish or shallow bowl and then serve with black olives, plenty of toasted country bread (or triangles of bread fried in olive oil) and wedges of lemon.



Filed under fish, In praise of, olive oil, patè and terrines, rachel eats Italy, recipes

23 responses to “In praise of salt cod

  1. I’ve had this in restaurants, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. I’d love to try making it at home. Thanks for another wonderful post.

  2. Rach

    Delicious! My other half recently made me a kinda bastardized cod brandade with a mixture of sweet potato and white potato, with cream and cheese, with some sauteed leeks on the side. The most perfect comfort food!

  3. I’ve just been reading Mark Kurlansky’s book ‘Salt’ (and salted fish features heavily – his book on cod is next on my list) – so this is a great look at ‘modern’ salt-cod. I’ll have to see if I can find any lurking in a deli somewhere and try out the brandade…

  4. arugulove

    This post put a smile on my face, since we honeymooned in Portugal, where salt cod is its own food group. This looks delicious! I may need to make a bowl, pour myself a glass of vinho verde, and think of Lisbon.

  5. “Baccalà!” A term of endearment from Roberto’s mother to her youngest, Gino. “Why does your mother call Gino salted cod?” I asked Roberto. I can’t remember exactly what he said it meant, but it wasn’t all that endearing. I think your adaptation of cream of salt cod would make for a nice Saturday lunch.

  6. If I didn’t read this post, I don’t think I’d ever try salt cod. And now I want to run to the Italian market and get pick some up right now. I’ll let you know how my first soaking goes.

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  8. man, i can’t believe how much great stuff i’ve missed. i feel left out 😦 and i’ve gotta catch up. salt cod is one of those things that is woven into the fabric of so many ethnicities and cuisines. it’s extremely versatile and so unbelievably tasty. i’m glad you’ve helped many readers understand how good it is. it’s cheap and satisfying!

  9. Truly one of my favorite dishes, and one I’ve not enjoyed in ages. I’ll be putting a stop to that trend soon enough. Delicious.

  10. i found your blog through Hande- on twitter. it’s really lovely. il bucatino was my favourite trattoria in Rome -i just moved from Rome one year ago 😦 and out of all my years in Rome- i even got to live in Testaccio for a year. this dish is lovely- it is my absolutely favourite dish at cul de sac- brandade di bacala. i am so happy to have found a similar recipe here, finally. i hope to visit your blog again. best wishes, shayma

    • rachel

      hello Shayma
      Thankyou for your message, gosh I’m sorry we didn’t cross paths sooner. Or maybe we did
      at the market or at Bucatino we just didn’t know it.
      I love the brandade at cul de sac too.
      really niice to be in touch

  11. wedothatinidaho

    This is so wonderful! Wow! Thank you for writing such a comprehensive salt cod explanation. I will be reading this blog again!

  12. Emmy

    When I went to the Portuguese poissonnerie here to make my first purchase of salt cod, the gentleman behind the counter tried to convince me to buy the pre-prepared package. But I was stubborn and demanded the version that looked like what I had seen in the museums in Oslo. The one with bones and skin! Good thing I got 3 lbs because the first batch fits the woolly description you mentioned. Thanks for making salt cod look so glamorous, might have ignored it otherwise!

    • rachel

      hello Emmy
      I had a wooly batch last week, left it soaking too long. I always ask advice
      in the shop about soaking times – even though I am quite confident now.
      I am really hopng your next batch is good.
      Thankyou for message

  13. Dea

    Oh you’ve just reminded me of my old “addiction” to brandade de morue, I may just have to go down to the supermarket, buy a piece of salt cod and start soaking. Nothing better than somc creamy brandade, rustic bread a few olives and a glass of wine or two 🙂 Ciao 🙂

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  16. Dave

    Oh man. I remember my mother would get salt cod in small wooden boxes and she made creamed cod on toast. Or maybe on spuds. I loved it. I need to try this. I have her recipe book, I hope it’s in ther.

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  18. We have just launched our new website for the finest quality salt cured cod and pollock fillets from the Shetland Islands.

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