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Bacalhau (salted cod fish) is the most popular base commodity in Portuguese cooking. Traditionally there are more than 365 different dishes, one for each day of the year, and the country has a love affair with the pungent smelling fish.
This guide will provide an overview of Bacalhau, including popular and common dishes and the process to make Bacalhau. The article will finish by answering one of the most puzzling questions regarding Bacalhau, why historically (and still to this day) do the Portuguese salt and dry a fish which is not native to their oceans?
Bacalhau is codfish that has been doused in vast quantities of salt and dried under the Mediterranean's hot sun. This ancient method of preservation means the cod can be stored indefinitely at ambient temperatures, with no bacterial or mould able to grow on the highly saline dried cod fish.
The traditional method to salt and dry the cod fish involves the cod cut lengthwise and hung from the caudal fin. To prepare for consumption the Bacalhau cod fish it is soaked in freshwater for a minimum of 24 hours to reduce the levels of salt. The cod is then shredded into one of the numerous dishes or served as sliced stakes.
Bacalhau piled high in the super markets
Bacalhau is so ingrained in the Portuguese national psyche that the dish is served as the main celebrational meal at Christmas. The Portuguese are also oblivious to the horrendous smells omitted from the fishmongers as the codfish drys in the sun.
One of the more appetizing Bacalhau dishes is called Bacalhau com Natas (Bacalhau and cream) a rich and creamy potato baked dish. Pasteis de bacalhau is an appetizer or light meal in which the Bacalhau is formed into croquettes.
Bacalhau is dried and salted so that it is rock solid
Bacalhau à Brás originated from the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon and combines shredded Bacalhau with thinly cut potatoes bound together by scrambled egg. The diversity of the three previous dishes may provide a basis to the myth that there are 365 different methods to serve Bacalhau.
The history of bacalhau can be traced back to the 14th century and exploration era of the Portuguese. The dried and salted cod could be kept in the ships holds for literary years and fresh supplies could be obtained from the oceans during a voyage. Bacalhau salted cod fish became a staple part of the Portuguese Navy's diet from 1497 with the discovery of vast reserves of cod off the shores of Newfoundland.
Cod is not found native to the coastline of Portugal and could only be fished from the distant and dangerous waters of Newfoundland. The seas surrounding Portugal are abundant with sardines but these were not chosen to be dried or salted. So why was Cod the preferential choice of drying and salting?
For the drying and preservation process to occur effectively there needs to be a low level of oils and fats in the fleshly sections of the fish. These oils and fat repel the saline water used in the salting process and prevent the salt preserving the fish. Cod and other white fish have very low levels of oils and the small amount are concentrated in the guts. This salting process also introduced the gutting stage of fish preparation. The fish commonly found in Portuguese waters are sardines and other oily fish which could not be salted. The last reason for the introduction of cod in the Portuguese navy was the sheer size of the cod reserves discovered off the coast of Newfoundland.