Food Lovers' Portugal: Bacalhau
Portuguese cuisine is an amazing mixture of traditional Mediterranean flavors with the exotic influences of Portugal's colonial history. A culinary vacation in Portugal can encompass everything from curry to rice pudding, from homemade sausage to salt cod, from amazing wines to the ubiquitous olive oil. Imports from former Portuguese colonies in Africa, India, and the Far East make chiles, ginger, coriander, vanilla, and saffron as common as garlic and herbs. Apart from the unique international spice profile, eating in Portugal is a bit like eating in the rest of Europe: breakfast is light, usually a roll and coffee. Lunch is large and long, often lasting up to two hours. And dinner is late, never before 8:00 pm, and frequently features several courses, including a soup (such as the famed Portuguese caldo verde, a wonderful soup of potato, sausage, and shredded kale).
Although meat is a category well represented in Portuguese cuisine, today we will concentrate on seafood, which from north to south can be found on every menu. Portugal has long had a well-developed fishing industry and is consistently ranked among the highest fish consumers per capita. Because of its large percentage of coastline, it should be no surprise that fish and seafood are Portuguese staples. Fresh fish certainly, such as grilled sardines, tuna, sea bass, and seafood delicacies like lobster, shrimp, and oysters, are popular both as stand-alone items and is such dishes as Caldeirada (a fish stew) and arroz de marisco (rice with seafood).
Less expected is the prevalence of salt cod, or bacalhau. Like Portugal's famed Madeira wine, bacalhau was developed as a way of keeping things over long sea voyages. In the 16th century, Portuguese fisherman who had arrived in Newfoundland salted and sun-dried their catch to make it last on the long trip home. And thus began several centuries of bacalhau recipes in Portugal. It has been said that there are over 365 different Portuguese recipes for bacalhau, so you could eat it a different way every single day of they year, and each region has its own bacalhau dish. There are pastéis de bacalhau (codfish croquettes), bacalhau à Gomes de Sã (with potatoes, onion, and topped with egg), bacalhau a molho verde (with green sauce made from olive oil, cabbage, and potatoes, a traditional Christmas Eve dish), bacalhau com natas (baked with onions, potato, and cream), bacalhau a portuguesa (with potatoes, tomatoes, onions, black olives, and sliced hard-boiled eggs), to name a few.
Sofia, the hostess and guide of our Delectable Portugal cooking vacation, fondly remembers the pleasure with which a group of Norwegians came to her cooking school to learn how to prepare cod. It was a wonderful example of the continuity of history, Norwegians learning to cook the very fish they exported to Portugal, which the Portuguese had adopted centuries earlier from the waters of the North Atlantic.
To learn to prepare bacalhau (although perhaps not all 365 ways!) please consult our list of cooking vacations in Portugal, or give us a call, we'd be happy to make some recommendations.
By Peg Kern