Portugal’s favorite fish does not swim in Portuguese waters. Since the 16th century, Portuguese fishermen have sailed to Newfoundland in search of gadus morhua, more commonly known as codfish. The French call the bland-tasting fresh cod “cabillaud” and the more appetizing salted cod “morue.” In Portugal this distinction is superfluous because only the salted variety is appreciated. So, one word suffices: “bacalhau.”
Since cod has very little fat, once it is cured in salt it keeps for a long time without becoming rancid. For this reason, dried codfish was often consumed by those who lived far from the coast in days of religious abstinence from meat like Christmas Eve.
The quality of the cod depends on the size of the fish (the larger the better) and the type of cure. To produce the best cod, the cure must begin on the boat, shortly after the fish is captured. This cure continues on land, usually in open-air pavilions. Lesser cod is stored frozen in the boat and cured only on land. Much of the codfish consumed in Portugal is cured in Ílhavo, a region with abundant sea salt.
Two popular sources of cod are Norway and Canada, but the best cod is caught in Iceland by Portuguese fishermen.
Before cooking, salted cod is soaked in water for two or three days to re-hydrate and remove most of the salt. The fish is then ready to be combined with symbiotic ingredients such as garlic, potatoes and olive oil.
The commerce of “bacalhau” is so important that there’s a whole street in Lisbon, Rua dos Bacalhoeiros, that was once reserved for codfish vendors.
In good times and bad, the Portuguese gather at the table to share this fish we call “fiel amigo” (faithful friend). It is a delicacy that comes from afar but has the taste of home.