Why you should care
Because cozy dishes are part of cuffing season.
Portuguese people adore cod. And not the kind you get with your fish and chips. They love bacalhau that’s dried and salted, that comes in rigid sheets of fishy goodness. The Portuguese are famous for boasting that you can find as many codfish recipes as there are days in the year, if not more.
While I’m acquainted with traditional dishes like bacalhau à brás, bacalhau à gomes de sá, punheta (a naughty word in Portuguese) de bacalhau salad and the baked bacalhau assado no forno, I decided to consult with one of Portugal’s top gastronomic authorities, Chef José Avillez (two Michelin stars for his restaurant Belcanto) about bacalhau in Portugal today. When we sat down in his taberna Bairro do Avillez for a chat, he humbly informed me that he wasn’t a bacalhau expert — could have fooled us.
The olives “wake you up and make the rhythm of the dish.”
First, a quick primer on Portuguese bacalhau. You won’t find cod swimming off the Portuguese coast. They’re caught far away in the North Atlantic, near Newfoundland, Norway and elsewhere. Portuguese sailors and explorers, from the 15th century on, began drying and salting cod (low in oils, facilitating the process) to preserve it for long voyages. Soon thereafter, this “exotic” fish took on a culinary life of its own back in Portugal.
Bacalhau is “a comfort food for many Portuguese,” Avillez says, reminding them of when their parents or grandparents would serve it to them. He learned to cook and experiment with bacalhau à brás (cod, potatoes, eggs and olives), his favorite salted cod dish, when he was in the Boy Scouts. He got so good at it, in fact, Scout leaders would come and dine at his troop’s campsite.
“You have to understand, it’s a beautiful dish,” he says. If cooked wrong, it’ll “become a tortilla,” which isn’t a good thing. Bacalhau à brás needs to be served “30 seconds after finished,” meaning the customer waits for the food, not the other way around. And, of course, you can’t forget the olives, which “wake you up and make the rhythm of the dish.” Brazilians love it, Avillez says, but with Americans it can be hit or miss. “They think it’s going to be a cheesy potatoes au gratin” and are then disappointed when they don’t find any cheese.
Bacalhau takes days to prep. In the past, people used to desalt it in rivers with a bag and a rope, letting the current remove the salt. Extremely poor people used to desalt it in their toilet tanks to conserve water. The tank is actually separate from the water with the xixi (pee) in it, but the proximity to the toilet bowl is less than appealing.
As to the current state of bacalhau, Chef Avillez laments the influx of cod that isn’t dried and salted properly (often from Russia), although he still enjoys experimenting with different recipes, like stews made with eel, and cod swim bladders (samus) that drive clientele crazy with delight, because they can’t quite pin down the flavors. When you “taste something this marvelous,” he says, with so many layers, like a great broth, “this is the soul of the kitchen.”
And while Portugal truly is the land of bacalhau, Chef Avillez doesn’t want people to “stay hostage” to this image. Yes, this little European country consumes a ton of salted cod, but there are other things to eat in Portugal. Those dishes are stories for another time.