There’s really no practical reason for baccala anymore. They have this thing called “refrigeration” now and you can freeze fish for months. The original concept — drying out flanks of Atlantic cod and salting them to preserve them — goes back centuries and remains a thing only because there’s a market for the resulting Old World flavor. Baccala (the Spanish word is bacalao) survives for taste and tradition.

Lexington Market

I grew up in a Portuguese-Italian family. Both sides were into cod. My father was born Jose Rodrigues on Madeira Island (he once caught a 36-pound cod while deep sea fishing off New England); my mother, the late and former Rose Popolo, was first-generation Italian-American (she made a codfish bake and codfish cakes from my father’s 36-pound cod). In my family, when it came to baccala, there was one big difference between the Portuguese and the Italians: The Portuguese kept bacalhau (pronounced bucc-a-yow) in their diet all year; the Italians used it almost exclusively in their annual Christmas Eve feast of the Seven Fishes. 

The Italian version I grew up with was essentially a casserole. My mother would buy a large flank of baccala at an Italian deli, cut it into chunks, then soak it in water in the refrigerator for at least two days, draining the water and refilling the soaking pot every 12 hours or so. She did not soak it too long because, if you do, you can rinse the unique taste right out of the flesh. Her Christmas Eve baccala included potatoes, onions, lots of garlic, diced tomatoes and parsley. Some kids hated this dish because of the unusual flavor of the reconstituted fish. I always liked it, and I cook baccala each year at Christmas to keep the tradition.

I last purchased mine from Harbor Seafood in Lexington Market, Baltimore. I also found it (not as good) at Hazlo International Food in the Highlandtown neighborhood. There are many Portuguese recipes for bacalhau. This year, I’m making something like a Portuguese bacalhau salad I saw at a market in New Bedford a few years ago — diced potatoes, red peppers, onions, artichoke hearts and capers with shards of bacalhau and herbs, olive oil, a little lemon.

My Portuguese grandmother, Justina Gomes Rodrigues, baked the bacalhau in a casserole, similar to my mother’s Italian version, but with a touch of vinegar and black olives. She also baked the bacalhau with slices of potato, egg and ham. She made a tomato-based stew with it. There is a famous version of bacalhau and potatoes called bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, named after the son of 19th Century cod merchant who developed the recipe. (Hey, if you’re going to harvest tons of cod and salt tons of cod, you’ve got to get people to buy tons of cod and eat it, and not only at Christmas.)

5 thoughts on “Baccala, bacalhau, bacaloa — it’s all cod to me

  1. I am a displaced Bostonian although Mr. Rodricks’ stint on “Midday” got me settled in Baltimore. I would add that in Boston one learns quickly that “salt cod” is not really one thing. In the heavily Portugese neighborhood of Inman Square, the groceries had salt cod in long filets up on the counter, looking — and kind of feeling — like so many slabs of balsa wood, and you could make nice bacalao or brandade de morue with it — European salt cod recipes. But in neighborhoods like Dorchester where you had a lot of people from the Caribbean and the Indies, salt cod was in semi-moist nuggets, and you bought them in brine and used them to make cod cakes.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. De nada. Feliz Natal. Tudo de bom. BTW, it is worth mentioning that Baltimore’s cod connection (as I recall from growing up in NW Baltimore in the 50s & 60s) has been with “coddies”, those “poor man’s crab cakes”, slightly flattened potato cakes flavored with salt cod and other seasonings and then deep-fried. They are traditionally served at room temperature, sandwiched between saltine crackers with mustard. I’ve not encountered them outside of Baltimore.

        Liked by 1 person

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