Bacalhau – the Portuguese staple

Cod fish

Portugal has many great recipes for fish. Its livelihood and cultural history is bound up with the wild and relatively unpolluted Atlantic Ocean, which surrounds half of the country.

All kinds of fish and shellfish are eaten – sardines, prawns, sea bass, swordfish, octopus, tuna, crab, mackerel, clams, and oysters – mainly freshly grilled or baked in the oven with olive oil, garlic, herbs and wine.

There are a couple of exceptions to the rule of putting fish straight from the sea on to the plate. One is caldeirada – a stew of any available fish or shellfish, simmered for several hours. The other exception is bacalhau, salted cod, a staple ingredient in Portuguese cooking. The salting process dates from the time before freezer units, when fishermen made their way north over hundreds of miles of Atlantic seas to Newfoundland to fish for cod. To preserve the fish, the fishermen used to clean and gut them on board the boat and then add layers and layers of salt to the flattened cod until the hold was full. Only then would they head for home, where the fish were dried in the hot Portuguese sun.

Bacalhau is curiously the only fish that is not consumed fresh in our fish-loving nation. It has to be de-salted and hydrated before it can be cooked - soaked in several changes of fresh water over two days. It is divided into pieces with the best cuts being the fillets in the centre of the fish, the remainder is used for soups and stews. In fact, the beginning of bacalhau in Portugal may have started as an inexpensive and easy-to-preserve substitute for Catholics required to forgo meat during holidays and other religious events.

There are said to be over 1,000 recipes in Portugal alone for bacalhau and it can be considered the iconic ingredient of Portuguese cuisine. It is often cooked on social occasions and is the traditional Christmas Eve dinner in some parts of Portugal.

One of the most delicious bacalhau dishes is called Bacalhau com Natas (salted cod with cream) a rich and creamy potato baked dish.

Different chefs and restaurants will most certainly have their own special way of cooking bacalhau and trying the different recipes throughout the country is a fun way to experience Portugal!

Published in: Travel / Site news / Portuguese Life / News and Updates / Guide to Portugal