The Great Bacalhau Experiment

Mercearia in Ponte de Lima

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!

One last swim before it gets cooked, some time in the next three days or so

5 thoughts on “The Great Bacalhau Experiment

  1. I love bacala. When I was a child, my Italian/American aunt would prepare it as a salad on Christmas Eve, with olive oil, celery, and olives, I think. I haven’t had it since, but I did like it very much as a kid, which is kind of odd. I’ve seen it plenty of times in supermarkets in its dried form, but truth be told, there are some foods that if I have to prepare them, I wouldn’t want to eat them. The shoe leather-like bacala is one of those foods, I’m afraid. I hope yours turns out well. You may just inspire me to give it a try.

    Have a wonderful Christmas and a very happy new year.

    • Hi Margaret! The notice of your latest post arrived while I was in the throes writing this last night. I have one last pile of work, the Christmas party, and a squalid flat to clean and then I am looking forward to collapsing and catching up on everyone else’s blogs!

      The bacalhau is intimidating, not to say downright off-putting! in its salted-plank-of-wood state, but I am holding firmly to memories of wonderful dishes I have eaten, to keep me going!

      Merry Christmas to you – and everyone! – too!

  2. You are a braver woman than I! I have been co-erced into cooking and eating bacalhau in various different forms and I have to admit that the only way I actually enjoy it is the “Bacalhau com Natas” version… This fish’s one saving grace is that it somehow seems to taste better than it smells, which is a relief! I have also never tried cooking it from a whole fish, so best of luck with that beast in your bathtub, I can’t wait to hear how it goes! Merry Christmas!

    • Hi. It is a dried, salted cod, known as Bacalhau in Portuguese. The middle photo shows it as it arrived – very dry, like shoe leather, literally, fairly stiff and crusted in salt. The last photo shows it in its first, of many, baths in water to remove the salt and reconstitute the dried flesh.

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