Still a bit chilly, isn’t it? It seems a while since I was in Portugal, enjoying slightly warmer weather and a few rounds of golf. I find it such a relaxing place – the pace of life always seems a few beats slower than here, and that’s good for the soul.
The food, also, is absolutely delicious, and in general very different from our Northern European repertoire. Of course, being a long thin country bordered by the Atlantic, fish is of great importance. And perhaps the most revered fish in Portugal, against some competition from the peppy little sardine (which, being a seasonal chap, just loses out) is the cod.
Specifically, salted dried cod known as bacalhau. The notion of preserving white fish in this way comes from the time during the 17th Century when improved transport meant the fishermen of Scandinavia could trade with the salt harvesters of the south.
All along the famous pilgrim routes down through Europe, and then even further, the dried fish became hugely popular for its long life and ease of use.
In France, dried cod makes the classic Brandade de Morue and the creamy, potato-y Estofinado, an autumnal dish from my beloved Aveyron.
In Spain it’s used in dozens of ways, with tomatoes or eggs, but the real home of salt cod is in Portugal, where it is the key ingredient in literally hundreds of recipes. As if to prove this, the Portuguese have no word for the cod itself. Instead, they call it ‘fresh salt cod’. Charming.
There, one can find it served with rich sauces of olives, tomatoes and herbs, or baked with cream. It can be deep-fried as fritters, puréed, or mixed with shellfish in broths. I tried the classic Bacalhau à Brás this holiday, and it was amazing.
Based around a mixture of the cod and finely-shredded potato (many busy households use bags of crunchy potato shreds, like crisps!), bound with soft scrambled egg and seasoned with salty olives, it’s delightful comfort food, and I had to try my own recipe.
For my own version, I added some fresh garlic (not much used in Portugal in traditional recipes for some reason), some herbs and I made much larger, crispier potato straws for extra texture.
Where it was once the devil’s own job to find salt cod in Yorkshire, it’s now readily available thanks to the shops catering for our vibrant West Indian community. Salt cod also made it all the way across the Atlantic, and it became very popular in several Caribbean countries, notably Jamaica, where the famous recipe of Ackee & Saltfish is almost considered the national dish.
Salt cod can now be found, neatly packaged and bone-free (phew) in some bigger supermarkets, too. Just head for the Caribbean shelves. Note that this dish requires the fish to be soaked overnight, so bear that in mind before you start cooking.
For the cod:
500g salt cod
4 medium baking potatoes
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
8 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
A handful of fresh parsley, chopped finely
100g Kalamata or green olives, pitted and halved
Green salad leaves
A little vinaigrette
Sunflower oil for deep-frying
Firstly, rinse the dried cod in plenty of fresh running cold water, at least ten minutes, then soak overnight in a large bowl of more fresh water.
The next day, drain the fish, gently rinse again under cold water, then carefully pat dry with paper towels. Cut the fish into bite-sized pieces and set to one side.
Heat a deep pan of sunflower oil to 130ºC. Peel and finely slice the potatoes, then cut into thin matchsticks. Soak in cold water for 15 minutes to allow the starch to leach out; this makes for a crispier chip. Drain well and pat the chips dry.
Fry in the oil until soft and floppy. Drain well and lay on a tray lined with a tea towel or a few layers of kitchen roll. Refrigerate for at least half an hour – this allows the chips to dry out a little which helps them stay crunchy.
Turn the oil up to 180ºC. Deep fry the potatoes until crisp, rustling and deep gold in colour. As the chips cook and drain, heat a little olive oil in a frying pan.
Add the chopped onion and garlic and sauté gently until the onion is translucent, about 20 minutes. Add the diced fish and the pepper and gently stir to combine. Cook for 5 minutes until the fish becomes slightly golden-edged.
Add half of the fried potatoes, stirring to combine, then pour the beaten eggs over everything.
Scramble the eggs gently until cooked but still nicely soft, stirring occasionally, which should take about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley.
Spoon onto a serving plate, and strew the other half of the potatoes over, along with the olives and serve immediately, along with a good green salad and some tomatoes.
And perhaps a nice glass of Vinho verde?