The French call it morue. The Italians baccala. And the Spanish baccalao. But no country seems to have taken salt cod under its wing as vehemently as Portugal where it is, to all intents and purposes, the national dish.
A common tale reveals it was the Portuguese navy that was behind the surge in the ingredient’s appeal. Crew would salt and dry meaty slabs of cod in the cool air of the Newfoundland coast – prime swimming ground for the fish. But us Brits soon put a stop to that, with the shipmates forced to transport great vats of brined fish back to their homeland, to be cut and sold at market, and air dried by home cooks and mongers.
Their collective love of the brackish, umami fish has not waned. In fact, I don’t want to brag, but I’ve got a whole cookbook, bought in Lisbon, dedicated solely to the preparation and eating of salt cod. There must be, at least, 101 ways to dish it up.
Largely you’ll find it bound with potatoes, in a bechamel, slathered in cream, or tangled with egg, to counter its salinity.
The time-honoured tradition of salting fish can be dated back many hundreds of years, and is a technique that you’ll see in the far, icy outbacks of the northern hemisphere, over to the Caribbean, and down into Africa.
It’s likely this way of preparing seafood became more commonplace at the time of the Vikings. Rightly proud of their handsome new keeled longboats, capable of transporting them to lands unknown, the intrepid travellers needed something enduring, safe and easy to store on their voyages. What better than stockfish (or stockfish – meaning stick fish thanks to its rock solid nature)? Innards removed, the prime cuts would be salted and dried in the open air for durability.
And that’s the exact technique David Poulson employs to produce his company’s (Thule Ventus) salt cod in the Shetland Islands.
Finding the small, independent business has been, says celeb chef James Martin, one of the ‘highlights’ of his career.
But it is nothing new. In this quiet, remote part of the world, producing salted fish (and piltock) is as natural as the ebb and flow of the tide, and the practice has been carried out here for some 600 years.
Honouring his family fishing heritage, and in a bid to put British salt cod back on the table, David set up Thule Ventus seven years ago, and hasn’t looked back.
Sustainable, and caught in Shetland waters by local fishing families, the cod is salted and air-dried on the island, before being shipped off to hungry, waiting customers.
Any waste offcuts are turned into healthy pet snacks. While it was a bit disconcerting to be offered treats for ‘Rover’ at the checkout after popping a batch of yummy salt cod in my virtual basket, I applaud David’s commitment to preventing food waste.
An 80g sachet of the cod will set you back just under £6, but that will stretch to bring flavour to a dish for three to four people. You don’t really need a lot.
Get your order in and it will arrive, in ambient packaging, through your letterbox, to chuck in the cupboard until you’re ready to enjoy it....which, in my case, was immediately.
To prepare, steep in fresh water in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours, changing the water once.
Drain, and you’re ready to go. You’ll find the fish retains its dense, fleshy texture. Thule Ventus’ version is pleasantly salty (some brands I’ve tried I lip-puckeringly inedible, despite a long soak), and has a fantastic depth of flavour.
If you’re just feeding yourself, you could turn out some pretty posh fish fingers by slicing and crumbing the cod. I recreated a family favourite from Portugal. Finely chip potatoes and fry in lashings of sunflower oil until softened and turning golden. Drain away the excess oil carefully and add chopped salt cod and beaten egg (I’d allow one large potato and two eggs per person – make in batches for two so everything cooks). Turn the fish and egg in the pan until the egg is almost cooked. Add a generous twist of pepper, flecks of parsley and devour.
Find out more about Thule Ventus and how to buy their salt cod, cod jerky, freah fish and, yes, pet snacks here.