Category Archives: patè and terrines

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

Chestnut days

To begin…..

a patè of wild mushrooms and chestnuts

After, Chestnut and borlotti bean soup

As I mentioned on Sunday, we have been given a large quantity of very beautiful, deep brown, smooth and glossy sweet chestnuts. I adore chestnuts so I was quite delighted and jumped around. Delight dissolved into mild panic at the sense of responsibility for such a nice gift (I still can’t talk about the last gift, the quinces, I am still ashamed) and the prospect of all the peeling. But that too dissolved and delight returned as we roasted and then gobbled the first chestnuts and I began making chestnut shaped plans.

Growing up in England we had chestnuts, but only very occasionally and almost exclusively at Christmas. Probably in the stuffing, almost certainly roasted in the embers of the fire and maybe, if we were lucky, my Dad would buy my Mum a box of marrons glacès to be offered around. But that was it, our chestnut quota until the following year.  I’m not sure why, we all liked them and my Mum was a thoughtful, seasonal cook and occasional forager. It’s not as if they were an exotic delicacy, we could buy the larger european ones or hunt down the smaller English ones throughout the autumn. Whats more there was a sweet chestnut tree – not to be confused with the horse-chestnut tree which provided us with conkers to be hurled at each other –  at the bottom of our road and Rothamstead park had several vast, old, gnarled trees which shed their prickly husks amongst serrated leaves from October. We just didn’t.

I only really started to cook and experiment with chestnuts when I came to Italy. Italians love and prize chesnuts – afterall they were a staple food here for thousands of years, they deserve to acknowledged – and they do such nice things with them that it becomes quite impossible to ignore, forget or neglect them especially in Autumn, the chestnut coloured months right up until Christmas.

So, the chestnut shaped plans…..

Well, I found 56 recipes I would like to make, most of them Italian or French and many from a lovely small but perfectly formed book by Ria Loohuizen about the history, culture and cooking of chestnuts called, quite appropriately, On chestnuts the trees and their seeds. My mum gave it to me for my birthday 3 years ago, 21 september 2006, I know because she always dates the inside cover.

I finally narrowed it down to 8 recipes – which reads like a rather grand dinner to be held in Umbria sometime in October (I know just the place) – 3 of which I have made before, a patè, a soup, a main course, 2 fine accompaniments involving bacon, a dessert, a cake and the hush……marrons glacè…… I would of course start at the beginning, the patè.

I am not actually suggesting this as a complete meal unless of course you want to see if a chestnut overdose is possible. I imagine each course could be a meal in itself with appropriate bits and frills. Having said that we did go for a chestnut double yesterday and have the first two chestnuts courses for lunch, the terrine, with plenty of nice bread and some pickled gherkins and the soup with a blob of creme fraiche.

But before we go any further….

Preparing the chestnuts

In Italy there are two types of chestnuts one is the small castagna commune (common chestnut) which is small and flat nut because each prickly burr contains 2 or 3 smaller nuts. The other is the (cultivated) larger, plumper marrone which is a single nut in a single prickly burr. The marrone has sweeter, jucier flesh and more of it. I like both.

When buying or collecting sweet chestnuts, look for the nice, hard, unwrinkled, shiny ones, which aren’t dented or cracked. They should have a certain weight, if they are light or soft or rattle they are old and have been kept too long. They will be dry and mean tasting.

The secret to cooking fresh chestnuts is cutting the shells properly so the shell and the tough astringent skin underneath comes away easily. Wash the nuts and then soak them in warm water for 20 minutes so the shells are easier to slash. Using a small sharp knife or a special chestnut knife make a horizontal cut across the curved side of the nut leaving the flat side uncut.

Now, I sometimes boil and I sometimes roast chestnuts before peeling them, it all depends on the recipe. For the following patè and soup I think roasting is best. So, put the slashed nuts (a little more than the required weight to account for the shells) on a baking tray and roast at 200°/400f for 25 minutes. Once they are quite tender and the skin hard and crisp, take the chestnuts out of the oven and wrap them tightly in a tea towel so the chestnuts steam a little and the shells come loose. You can also crush the chestnuts slightly while they are still wrapped so the shells break. After 10 minutes unwrap and peel the chestnuts.

So the patè

Patè of chestnuts and wild mushrooms

Adpated from Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’

I’ve made this before and I love it. I want to ramble on about the thick, rich texture of chestnuts and how they are hearty and sweet yet deeply savory at the same time, how well they go with mushrooms, that this feels like food from another time, that I wish I could write poems about chestnuts………. To top it all I used a fresh porcini which was very extravagant but very very tasty.

You can use any kind of mushrooms for this recipe including ordinary cultivated ones but in general the wilder the better. As I have already said, serve at room temperature with pickled gherkins, onions, lots of nice toasted bread and a bottle of rough and ready Chianti. Spread thickly.

  • 100g mushrooms
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small red onion finely diced
  • 250g chestnuts cooked and peeled
  • 25g good butter
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 or 6 juniper berries (optional)

Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth; never rinse mushrooms or they become soggy. Chop the mushrooms finely.

Warm the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms to the frying pan and let them fry gently for about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Puree the chestnuts with a food processor, hand blender, mouli-legumes or mash them with the back of a fork,add a tablespoon of warm water if they seem too dry.

Add the soft butter and chestnut purèe to the onion and mushrooms in the frying pan, add a grating of nutmeg and stir all the ingredients with a wooden spoon until they are well incorporated.

Pack the mixture into an earthenware terrine or small bowl and decorate the top with juniper berries.

Leave the mixture to set in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Serve at room temperature.

Now the the soup

Chestnut and borlotti bean soup

Adpated from Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’

serves 4 very well

I once ate a wonderful bean and chestnut soup in Umbria. I tried to ask what type of beans they had used but my wonky italian and English accent confused   the waitress who scuttled away whispering ‘fagioli fagioli‘ (beans beans) which didn’t really narrow it down. Anyway the colour of the soup suggested borlotti which made sense as I have always thought borlotti beans have a nutty rather chestnut like quality to them. So I experimented.

I like this soup very very much, the richness and texture of the chestnuts make a wonderfully thick, substantial, velvety soup and the colour…well it’s chestnut, which I think is quite beautiful.

It is a lovely lunch for a cold day accompanied by some toasted bread and a simple green salad for after.

  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium onion peeled and finely diced
  • I slim leek, cleaned and finely sliced
  • 1 stalk celery finely diced
  • 400g cooked borlotti or cranberry beans
  • 400g peeled chestnuts
  • 1 litre of chicken, vegetable stock or water
  • salt and pepper, nutmeg
  • crème fraiche

Melt the butter in a large soup pan and saute the onion until it is soft and translucent. Add the leek and celery and a little salt and let the vegetables gently fry on a low heat for 5 minutes.

Add the beans and the chestnuts to the pan, stir and allow everything to cook together for a few minutes.

Add the stock or water and bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let the soup simmer for 25 minutes.

Pass the soup through the mouli-legumes, blast with a hand blender or purèe with the food processor. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Stir.

Serve the soup very warm but not really hot in warm bowls with a blob of crème fraiche.

Practical things

Fresh chestnuts can be kept for days in a cool place or for weeks in the fridge, We can also learn from animals who keep them under a layer of leaves and go leaf collecting or simply lay our chestnuts in box and cover them with a layer of sand. Chestnuts freeze very well once you have peeled them.

The last thing.

The oldest chestnut tree, one of the oldest trees in the world, grows on the Island of Sicily on the eastern slope of the volcano Etna, and is known locally as Il castagno dei 100 cavalli, ‘the tree of 100 horses’. The legend has it that during a thunder-storm the queen of Aragon found shelter for herself and the 100 horsemen who accompanied her on a visit to mount Etna. This magnificent tree, which is estimated to be between 2000 and 4000 years old has been described since the 16th century in the diaries of many travellers, and sketched or painted by artists. When the Scottish traveller Patrick Brydone, who was initially doubtful it was one tree, measured its girth in 1770, he found it to be 62 meters.

Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’


Filed under Beans and pulses, chestnuts, food, patè and terrines, recipes, soup