If you have ever read about Portuguese food, you might have come across the statement that salted cod, known in Portuguese as bacalhau, is Portugal’s national dish. We could argue this, not only because we think that there are other dishes that better embody Portugal’s edible history, but also because cod is not a dish, but rather an ingredient. That being said, salted cod is indisputably a national staple and has been so for the past 500 years.
Even though the Portuguese word bacalhau simply translates as cod, here in Portugal, when we talk about bacalhau, we are automatically referring to cured salt cod. Only in the last couple of decades have Portuguese cooks started playing around with fresh cod, which still doesn’t amount to even 10% of the total cod consumption in our country.
As far back as 2000 years ago, during the peak of the Roman Empire which extended across Europe and into the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal was already into drying fish. In fact, during those times, Portugal was the biggest supplier of preserved fish for the entire empire. Peniche, the Sado and the Tejo Valley, all nearby Lisbon, as well as the southern areas of the Alentejo and the Algarve, were home to fish processing plants, with very notable economic potential. Even when the trade routes of the Roman Empire started losing importance, the Portuguese fishing and fish preservation industries lived on well throughout the centuries.
All sorts of fish caught in the Portuguese coastline used to be cured with abundant salt and dried under the sun, to guarantee the extended shelf life of the ingredient, not only locally, but even more so to be transported to different parts of the country and the continent. Salting fish emerged as a technique thanks to the sheer necessity of preserving food when no reliable cooling methods existed.
Cod has never existed in Portuguese waters. This big species, gadus morhua, which can weigh up to 40kg, thrives in deep icy waters, such as those around the North Atlantic. There is no exact historical record of when cod started being consumed by humans, but we do know for sure that, around the 9th century, Vikings were already relying on this chunky fish during their sea voyages. Even though cod could be fished from aboard their ships during the actual trips, Vikings were already keen on preserving it beforehand, for the sake of food guarantee for extended periods of time. Unlike the Portuguese, the Viking method of fish preservation did not involve salt. The fish was simply cut open, deboned, and left to dry under the sun, either on wooden racks or over rocks by the shore. The removal of water content from the flesh would guarantee safety during its storage.
Nowadays, you will still find stockfish in nordic countries such as Iceland and Norway. Salted cod only came into existence when in 1497 the Portuguese reached Newfoundland, in Canada. It was the 15th century when the Portuguese came across what was the most abundant resource of cod ever seen.
While making stockfish would be the most obvious choice to make the most of this food resource, the truth was that the climate across the Atlantic didn’t make this preservation method feasible. As such, the Portuguese did what they had been doing for centuries with other fish: salting it! They would catch the cod, gut it, cut it into pieces just like it was being done until then for air drying, but instead of hanging it open air, they would put it inside wooden barrels with lots of coarse salt. Salted cod represented an incredibly nutritious and long-lasting food source aboard the ships during the Portuguese sea expeditions to the Americas and Asia. Of course the same could have been done with the smaller fish caught in Portugal’s coast, but cod was more attractive.
This is when the era of stockfish came to an end in Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula as a whole, and the reign of bacalhau began. Curiously, the name bacalhau evolved from the Dutch kabeljauw, which has already been borrowed from the French cabaillaud. Independently of the name, the seafaring countries of Europe started preferring the salted cod from this point in history onwards.