Bacalhau – it’s codfish, but it’s not fresh

Bacalhau dishes

Brits often find Bacalhau a difficult idea to digest. Dried codfish? Salty? Not fresh with vinegar and chunky chips? No batter? All my Portuguese friends who have sampled British fish and chips love it, but ask a Brit to sample bacalhau and they might screw their nose up.

There are apparently more than a thousand bacalhau recipes, and most Portuguese know how to cook a few of them. Done well, Bacalhau is a wonderful, tasty and nutritious meal, and one of the key ingredients is olive oil (“azeite”). The core ingredient, bacalhau, is dried and salted cod – a delicacy created 500 years ago by fishermen who needed a way to preserve their catch. Drying out the fish and salting it kept it from going bad and preserved the flavour.

Bacalhau dishes
Left to right: Bacalhau no Forno, Bacalhau à Brás and Bacalhau com Natas

Most of the good bacalhau comes from Norway, with some coming from Iceland or Newfoundland. Popular dishes include Bacalhau à Brás (baked with a layer of fries), Bacalhau no Forno (in the oven) and Bacalhau com Natas (with cream). Staple ingredients include the bacalhau itself, potatoes (boiled,mashed, cut in strips or some other variety), olive oil and olives.

A helping of onions, cabbage and carrots is often served as well. The secret of cooking bacalhau is that you have to plan a day or two ahead, because you need to de-salt the codfish in water a long time before you want to cook it. If you eat a creamy dish, like Bacalhau com Natas, it’s the equivalent of the UK’s fish pie, but if you eat Bacalhau no Forno,use plenty of olive oil for moisture and drink plenty of water, as it can feel a little dry once you get half way through your plate.

Whatever you do, do not turn up your nose at the idea of Bacalhau until you’ve tried it because it really is a healthy and enjoyable meal – not least because a good bottle of chilled vinho verde complements it nicely.

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