As we approach Christmas millions of Portuguese and Luso-descendants around the world will be purchasing bacalhau (cod) to serve on Christmas Eve. It is the quintessential dish traditionally served the night before Christmas. The tradition originated in the middle ages where the period before major ecclesiastical observances (in particular Easter and Christmas) were marked by fasting. Perhaps the most known fasting period was (and continues to be) Lent which had 40 days of fasting to pay homage to Christ who went into the dessert for 40 days. Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, was also marked by fasting in the early period of the church but has since evolved into one day: December 24. At different times fasting meant many different things. The church changed the rules many times as it went from just eating bread and water, limiting consumption of food to one meal (usually after sunset), eating only white meat, refraining from alcohol and eventually mandatory fish and seafood. Fish and seafood were adopted in Europe because it was cheap and considered a secondary protein. Meat was considered a delicacy of sorts and like in modern times meat was the preferred protein of a vast majority of people. Codfish quickly became the “go to” dish primarily because it was well preserved in salt. Codfish was always available given its long shelf life which meant it could be enjoyed in coastal communities and in interior locations where fresh fish and seafood was nearly impossible to find. Codfish was also cheap!
I know it sounds absurd to say this given that in the 21st century salted cod is more expensive than lobster. Good quality salted cod goes for $11.99 a pound while lobster can be had for about $8.99. It is no surprise that Portugal adopted cod as the fish of choice for Christmas Eve. The Portuguese were experts in catching cod and making sea salt. These two ingredients came together to give the world salted cod or as we know it bacalhau. For many eating cod wasn’t always enjoyable. The first thirteen years of my existence on this planet was marked by weekly torture because my parents served cod once a week. While most children looked forward to Christmas Eve with visions of sugar plums (as the popular song goes) and all that I had nightmares of eating cod. My parents would not allow any exceptions and unlike millennials who grew up with food allergies, gluten free diets and sensitivity to dietary preferences there was no secondary dish for the kids at my house. My sister and I ate what my parents made and if we didn’t like it well too bad there would be another meal in 8 hours, so we wouldn’t starve to death. I would try to mask the flavor by melting some butter over it or drowning it in olive oil. Other times I would make a sandwich and if that didn’t help, I would just pinch my nose and swallow the darn thing.
No matter what, I had to finish what was on the plate. It sounds mean, but I am glad they did that because today I eat just about anything. At around age thirteen something remarkable happened: I started to like cod. Perhaps it was puberty, the maturation of my palate or some weird food version of Stockholm Syndrome but a love affair was born. I really like cod and its right up there with Portuguese BBQ chicken as my favorite food. When you think of it salted cod is not that appetizing. The fresh version is white and flaky with a very mild taste. This makes it popular for fish and chips or simply pan fried or oven baked. Salting and drying gives it a very different flavor characteristic. Salt cod is very pungent and has a strong fishy flavor because the process of making it enhances those flavor characteristics. Salting and drying are the oldest and most natural ways of preserving food. The process of salting and drying cod was first practiced by the Portuguese, Spanish and French who had an established fishing industry and abundant sea salt production. When the cod was caught it was beheaded and eviscerated (disemboweled) on the ship and stored with layers of salt in the ship’s hold. Once the ship returned to port the cod was sun dried on wooden platforms for about 4 weeks.
Before the advent of indoor electric drying facilities this meant that drying cod was seasonal and could only be accomplished in the summer. This further enhanced its availability and consumption at Christmas because there was an abundant supply of it. An abundant supply meant that cod was cheap around Christmas and therefore the perfect protein for Portuguese Catholics to enjoy while still adhering to church rules on fasting. While consuming salted cod as it comes from the market won’t kill you it really doesn’t taste very good. It must first be rehydrated by soaking it in fresh water for about four to five days (depending on the thickness) with daily changes of water so that the salt is leeched out. Once hydrated and de-salted you can consume the fish raw and it is popularly prepared in salads.
The most popular way of eating cod on Christmas Eve in Portugal is to boil it with potatoes, broccoli rabe and drizzle it with the finest Portuguese Olive Oil. Some folks like to add raw minced garlic on top. In my family we add a slab of salted pork belly as the water boils. I am not sure why but my grandmother Ascenção (on my father’s side) began doing this and we have adopted the tradition. Salted pork was her Achilles heel and despite the warnings of her doctor (who was also her neighbor) she consumed it right up to her final days. The addition of the pork to the salted water gives it a very interesting flavor note. It sort of adds an umami characteristic and while you wouldn’t think that the two would work together it somehow does. So here is my recipe for traditional Christmas Eve boiled codfish with broccoli rabe and potatoes.