Bacalhau, Portugal’s national dish, was once a staple protein. Like prosciutto ham or our own biltong this cured cod also came about hundreds of years before the invention of the refrigerator in 1915. Unusually for a national dish the fish isn’t even found anywhere near sunny Portugal.
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Rather cod comes from the freezing North Sea and off Newfoundland, where it was once plentiful. From the 16th Century the globalist Portuguese sailed thousands of miles to catch, salt and dry the fish onboard. But the population of this species, that could still have been part of a healthy diet for millions, is now under pressure due to over fishing.
The blame is widespread and includes the British love of deep-fried fish and chips, where it is the preferred fish. Cod is now expensive and bacalhau a luxury. But boiled with potatoes it remains the cenntrepiece of a Portuguese Christmas Eve dinner. Grilled it is offered in most Portuguese restaurants as well as prepared hundreds of other ways.
Cod is known as one of the best suited fish for salting, after which it is said to have the nose of “smelly socks”, according to a piece in the New York Times by Elaine Sciolino. Before cooking it needs to be soaked in order to remove some of the briny flavour.
What is beyond dispute is that it is an acquired taste. One I have until today yet to sample in its truest form.
At Toni’s, which proudly sells Portuguese food and not just the ubiquitous colonial fiery Mozambican peri-peri chicken, the waiter guides me away from the boiled bacalhau towards the grilled option.
“Bacalhau tastes like an old woman belting a fado ballad, textures fusing together, telling a sad, beautiful story to your mouth,” according to Lisbon anti-tourism blogger we hate saudade (nostalgia).
But the Times’ Sciolino warns: “Every family has a horror story of the relative who spent days preparing bacalhau only to serve it too dry or too salty. In other words, inedible.”
My garlic and olive oil dressed fish is golden from grilling but is so salty it is barely edible, even when chewed with the tame boiled potatoes and fresh green beans. And I love salty food.
I mention the flavour to a man I assume to be Toni. He tastes it and agrees it is a bit too salty today but adds that it is a briny dish (while praising me for my adventurous appetite). He explains that when the supplier sends pieces that are too thick, as is the case today, the soaking does not penetrate deep enough. It cannot be soaked longer because this will cause it to disintegrate at the edges.
Will I try it again? Yes. Will I try it at Toni’s again? Yes, but only once more. Just like I will again eat uncleaned tripe. This tripe is a popular delicacy in Africa, the pungence of which recently resulted in me relapsing into my childhood fried kidney phobia. My reason for perseverance: palates are not fixed but shaped through experience and culture. The more you try the more likely you are to start enjoying. Is Toni’s bacalhau just a touch brackish today or is it Dead Sea Salty? I really can’t say for sure. Tastes within Portugal also vary on the saline scale.
(And no, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa was not referring to bacalhau when he lamented: “Oh salty sea, how much of your salt is tears from Portugal.”)
Look I know you conscientious seaside foodies like to bring up your babies on Anchovy Purity but I was born in the landlocked Natal Midlands. I did not take to the sleek swimmers overnight. Yet today anchovies are probably the one ingredient that will almost always be in my fridge. I add them to roasts, pastas, mash and almost always order a pizza with them. Even in a drink. One of these fishies in an olive makes for the finest martini, the Classic 51, providing relief from the ginny last sip, which is invariably warm. Lets hope salt cod can become my ‘anchovy’.
That a basic food of ordinary people, such as preserved cod, is now an indulgence is also not that unusual. Imagine how the Cape’s strandlopers tired of harvesting (now prized) oysters and crayfish by the sackful. There is also the (possibly) apocryphal story from Boston that well over 100 years ago a law was passed in Massachusetts forbidding bosses from feeding their workers lobster more than three times a week. Not to mention the ordinary oxtail. The tail of an ox that was past its ploughing date was once stewed out of thrift. Now it is one of the pricier cuts of meat.
If you are keen to start delving into bacalhau but balk at a whole portion of the pungent peixe, most food writers suggest you use pasties de bacalhau (bolinhos de bacalhau; cod cakes) as a gateway drug. The flesh is often moderated with potato and onion before being deep-fried. The atmospheric red bar, Tjing Tjing, at Dear Me restaurant, sell a similar cigar-shaped deep-fried croquette snack that I have enjoyed. It shouldn’t offend even the most staid of palates.
A dish that needs no gentle introduction is feijoada, the white beans and smoky pork dish, which is as popular in Portuguese speaking Brazil as it is in the homeland. At Toni’s it also has chicken, carrots and slices of a dark sausage I believe to be murcela or blood sausage. A comforting winter dish like many stews from other cultures.
Another hearty meal on offer here is caldo verde, the kale and chourico soup that is seen on our menus far too rarely. Not sure if they use kale or substitute the more readily available spinach. When I return to try the bacalhau again I will order caldo verde, the one dish that the popular Melville Portuguese restaurant Nuno’s used to prepare so well. And at so little expense to the customer.
An American resident of Cape Town, who is dining with his toddler son at the next door table in Toni’s, raves about the quality of the chicken used in the kebabs and the honesty of the hand-cut chips.
My companion, The Swiss Miss, complains that the interior here has a nose of smoke and booze so we sit outside next to the braziers. I on the other hand only notice a warm fire inside.
Bacalhau R150, feijoada R76 and beef trinchado R59.
Standard dishes here, available in most Portuguese-Mozambican restaurants, include: imported Portuguese Sardines with red pepper; peri-peri chicken livers; prawns and Falklands calamari done many ways; beef trinchado (rump cooked in wine); and espetada (a skewer of rump with bay leaf). In South Africa peri-peri is also pronounced pelle-pelle, as in the rugby player Chilliboy Ralepelle.
2/5 stars over lunch. Yes it’s the cod.
A note on Fernando Pessoa and cod stocks
For years I was moved by this melancholic quote from Pessoa on a plaque in downtown Durban but wondered what the hell it was doing there. More than that I wondered who the hell he was. Only recently did I read that after his death in 1935 did Pessoa became known as one of Portugal’s best poets, but what is less well known is that he, along with South African poet Roy Campbell, attended Durban High School.
There have been recent reports of cod stocks in North Sea recovering due to British restrictions. Unfortunately the Spanish controls over the same waters are far laxer.
Posted July 6, 2011