Monday, 29 October 2012

Flavours Holidays takes the ’sniffiness’ out of salt cod.

Salt cod is something the British have never really been able to get their heads around. Perhaps it’s living on an island that makes us screw up our pretty noses at such desiccated delights. Yet if you are an inhabitant of a remote Italian mountain village then the sight of a flattened and filleted side of cod is always welcome. All across the Mediterranean and beyond, people in Portugal, Spain and Italy enjoy salt cod and the teachers at the Flavours cooking courses know a thing about it too!

It has become a staple ingredient for Christmas Eve celebrations. In Italia it’s called La Vigilia and has its history imbued with the strictures of Wednesday and Friday fasts which had to be catered for, even throughout the austere winter months. Having lost the Catholic faith as the dominant one in the UK during the 16th century, these observances were mostly abandoned and along with it, the reliance on fish for religious purposes. Therefore it all sounds a little fishy to the Brits!

What does remain is the fact that once salt cod has been dried, it is virtually imperishable and becomes a vital store cupboard item providing much nourishment. In Italy you can take your pick of Stoccafiso which is wind dried cod or Baccalà which is dried salt cod. The curing processes are completely different and as a consequence, you will end up with two completely different products in terms of outward appearance, texture and taste. Stoccafiso begins its life in Norway, Iceland or Newfoundland. It is landed, gutted and then dried by the biting north winds that blow through Norwegian fjords. When the fish are cured they are packed and sent to Italy where they hang like banners in shops dedicated to them. At this point they look a little like damaged umbrellas, having battled a winter gale. To those unused to this ingredient they don’t look particularly appetising as they have been thoroughly beaten and desiccated by their treatment and it takes much love and patience to bring them back to some semblance of their fishy past. This is achieved through various methods, including beating them unsoaked, with an appropriately sized hammer and changing the water, often over a period of days. Salt cod especially, requires frequent changes of water to rid the flesh of the intense saltiness.

Baccalà is the cod from the North Atlantic and is probably more appealing to anyone wanting to handle such an object for the first time. Its flesh is whiter and soaking time can be kept to just 24 hours so it has much more going for it than the wind dried Stoccafiso in terms of preparation time; it also has the benefit of having, how can I put it, a less intense aroma!

So Baccalà Stufato Con Latte from the book ‘Honey from a Weed’ by Patience Gray.

To feed four she suggests: 1 kilo salt cod, 2 bay leaves, 6 large potatoes, olive oil, marjoram, black pepper, 750ml milk, grated nutmeg, garlic, parsley, 2 hard-boiled egg and black olives. Cut the cod into manageable pieces and soak in a deep bowl skin side up for 24 hours changing the after a couple of times. Cook the cod in an earthenware vessel with lots of cold water and add the bay leaves. Do not let the water boil or the fish will be tough. Once it has a head of steam simmer for 5 minutes, remove from the heat and leave to stand for 30 minute. Drain, remove skin and bones, then flake. Peel and slice onions and potatoes to a reasonable thickness, pour some olive oil in the base of a pan then add a layer of potatoes and onions slices, then fish and repeat. Sprinkle with oregano and black pepper, barely cover with milk and then simmer until potatoes are cooked. You should have a creamy consistency going on with the milk by now. Grate some nutmeg on top and some finely chopped raw garlic and parsley. Decorate with slices of hard-boiled egg and un-stoned olives, close your eyes and imagine a bright winter’s day in Italy while flicking through Flavours 2015 brochure for a painting, Pilates or cooking holiday which will be well deserved by the time we reach spring.

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