For some time I have been meaning to learn to cook bacalhau (ba-kal-yow), but whenever I looked at it in the shops I was too overwhelmed to get beyond just looking – as witness this little mercearia in Ponte de Lima with ten, count ‘em, ten different qualities of bacalhau for sale.
I should pause to explain: bacalhau is dried salted cod. You will learn more – much more! – shortly.
Well, the decision that it is now time to learn about bacalhau has been made for me. I opened the Cabaz Natal (Christmas gift box, traditionally food items) from my employer, and beheld a fish tail curled up over the inner flaps of the box. Rather amusingly, when I posted this photo to my Facebook page, identified only as “Christmas dinner” it took less than five seconds for a Portuguese friend to identify it as bacalhau.
There followed a lively discussion about how to cook it between three of my Portuguese wine and food loving friends. My intention had been to use a recipe from the kitchen of one of my employer’s Douro quintas, but that was flatly nixed, and I was told that here in the north of Portugal it is traditional on Christmas Eve to serve bacalhau as a late night supper very simply cooked, with good olive oil drizzled over, grelos (one of several variations on turnip greens), cabbage and good potatoes. The next day you can cook it in more elaborate variations, if you wish, but not on Christmas Eve! Oh, and serve with a good red wine, of course.
So… this cod. It is very heavily salted – we’re talking a thick gritty crust of coarse sea salt. In the shops you can pick out a cut up piece, but I have the whole fish, split open and flattened. It’s huge, roughly 85 centimetres from end to end.
The first thing you have to do is soak it in water to remove the salt, and change the water regularly. Most recipes tell you to soak for 24 hours, one friend said three days, and one book said, soak it for as long as it takes to get down to whatever degree of saltiness (or lack thereof) tastes good to you – break off a little piece and taste it. That sounds good advice to me. So, given that I only got it down to soak tonight, the 22nd, there is no knowing when I will have my Christmas Eve supper!
The fish is bigger than any dish I own, so I thought I would cut it up. Hah! In its dried state bacalhau is very hard and tough. I finally put it on the floor with the cutting board underneath to get better leverage – imagine doing a kneeling push up leaning both hands and all your weight on the upper edge of the knife blade. I did manage to trim off the triangular side pieces which are a little thinner, less meaty, than the central section, but my knife will never be the same and there was no hope of cutting across the centre.
So… out came the tub I use for hand wash laundry, and there it lies tonight, enjoying its final swim. It should be in the fridge, but I am not at all worried – my flat has no heat and the kitchen is fully tiled and icy cold.
Check back for further updates on my bacalhau adventure!