In the sun-kissed land of Portugal, there lies an unbreakable bond with a seemingly simple ingredient: codfish. This humble fish has woven itself into the tapestry of Portuguese culture, creating culinary masterpieces that have delighted palates for centuries.
Interestingly, despite Portugal's abundant coastline and a thriving fishing industry, the codfish that graces the Portuguese table is not fresh, as it would be in many other coastal countries. Instead, it is dried and salted, in a tradition that stretches back through the ages. Moreover, the love affair between Portugal and codfish is so intense that we consume an astonishing 20% of all the cod caught in the world!
As we delve into this captivating topic, we will explore how history, maritime trade, and inventive gastronomy have collaborated to give this fish a hallowed place in Portuguese hearts. Join us as we set sail on an odyssey of taste and tradition, centered around Portugal's beloved bacalhau!
Sailing through history: The maritime roots of cod in Portugal
We’re embarking on a voyage through the tempestuous waves of history to unravel how the codfish swam into the heart of Portuguese cuisine. Our journey commences in the 15th century, during the Age of Discovery, when gallant Portuguese explorers sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in search of new lands, riches, and new trade routes. These seafarers inadvertently stumbled upon the cod-rich waters of Newfoundland. With salt at their disposal - a maritime treasure as valuable as gold back then - they had the foresight to preserve the fish by salting and drying it. Thus, the illustrious bacalhau made its grand entrance into the Portuguese larder!
However, in the following centuries, Portugal lost its dominance in cod fishing, due to the competition from other European powers, such as Britain, France, and Spain, and the decline of its own empire. Cod became more expensive and scarcer and was mostly consumed by the wealthy classes. The common people relied on sardines and other fresh fish from the coast.
But let’s hoist our sails further through the currents of time, to the 20th century. With the gales of change sweeping through Europe, Portugal, under the helm of a dictatorship, steered through rocky economic waters. The regime promoted cod as a national food and launched a campaign to boost domestic production and reduce imports. The government encouraged the consumption of bacalhau as an inexpensive source of protein. Moreover, it became entwined with national identity; consuming codfish was a patriotic duty and a symbol of the nation's indomitable maritime spirit. Cod was cheap, filling, and versatile, and became a staple for the working classes, especially in times of war, crisis, and religious fasting. The government also controlled the prices, financing, and recruitment of the cod fishing industry, which employed thousands of men who endured harsh conditions in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.
At Christmas, tales of yore were shared around hearths, as families tucked into plates of bacalhau, each morsel soaked in the salt of the sea. Even as the dictatorship receded into history, our love affair with codfish persisted, as did the myriad recipes that sailed through generations.
Today, Portugal is one of the largest consumers of cod in the world, with an average of 35 kg per person per year. There are hundreds of recipes for bacalhau, ranging from simple dishes to elaborate ones.
Codfish became more than just a delicious food: it also became a reminder of Portugal’s rich and complex history, shaped by its maritime adventures and discoveries. It is a faithful friend that has accompanied the Portuguese through good and bad times, and that continues to be part of our identity and culture.
The codfish route in Portugal
If you want to discover the best places to enjoy some tasty codfish in Portugal, you can follow this route that will take you from Lisbon to Porto, passing by Ilhavo, considered to be the Portuguese capital of codfish. Along the way, you will find shops, restaurants, and museums dedicated to this iconic fish that has shaped the history and culture of this marvelous country.
In Lisbon, you can start by visiting the Interpretive Center of the History of Codfish, located in Terreiro do Paço, one of the most emblematic squares of the city. This museum will tell you the story of why the Portuguese sailed for months to catch cod in the cold waters of Newfoundland and Greenland, and how they preserved it with salt for the long journeys back home. You will also learn about the different ways of cooking cod, from simple dishes like bacalhau à Brás (cod with eggs and potatoes) to elaborate ones like bacalhau com todos (cod with everything). You will even have the chance to taste some cod recipes in a virtual tasting room!
After the museum, you can walk around the streets of Lisbon and look for shops selling codfish. You can find it in different shapes and sizes, from whole fish to fillets, from dried to fresh. Some of the most famous shops are Casa Natal (Rua dos Bacalhoeiros), Conserveira de Lisboa (Rua dos Bacalhoeiros) and Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau (Rua Augusta), where you can try a delicious codfish cake stuffed with cheese from Serra da Estrela.
In Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this tradition is also quite alive. Here you will find more shops and restaurants specializing in codfish, such as Casa Aleixo (Rua da Estação), Casa Guedes (Praça dos Poveiros) and D’Bacalhau (Rua da Pimenta). You can also visit the Mercado do Bolhão, a traditional market where you can buy fresh cod and other delicious products.
Between Lisbon and Porto, you can always take the opportunity and head to Ilhavo, a small town near Aveiro that is known as the Portuguese capital of codfish. Here you can visit the Maritime Museum of Ilhavo, where you will find a cod fish aquarium, a replica of a fishing boat, and an exhibition about the history of cod fishing. If you are travelling during summertime, you can also attend the Cod Festival, which takes place every year in August and celebrates the gastronomy and culture of codfish.
This is just a sample of what you can find on the codfish route in Portugal. There are many other places to explore and enjoy this fish which is part of the unique Portuguese identity!
How to sample codfish in Portugal
Since Portuguese explorers discovered the codfish banks off the coast of Newfoundland in the 16th century, they have developed hundreds of ways to cook and enjoy this versatile ingredient. You might prefer it fried, baked, sautéed or grilled – either way, you will find a codfish dish that suits your palate and mood! Cod became such an integral part of Portuguese culture that we even have a saying: "There are more than 365 ways to cook bacalhau - one for each day of the year".
One of the most common ways to eat codfish is in the form of pastries or fritters, called pastéis or bolinhos de bacalhau. These are small snacks made of shredded codfish, potatoes, eggs, parsley and garlic, shaped into balls or croquettes and deep-fried until golden and crispy. They are perfect as appetizers or street food, and go well with a glass of wine or beer!
Another classic codfish dish is bacalhau à Brás, which originated in Lisbon. It consists of shredded codfish sautéed with onions, garlic, olive oil, and straw-like fried potatoes, mixed with beaten eggs, and garnished with black olives and parsley. It is a hearty and satisfying dish that can be eaten as a main course or even a light meal. A variation of codfish à Brás is golden codfish, which is typical of the Alentejo region. It differs from the original version by adding more eggs, cheese and béchamel sauce, making it richer and creamier. It is also baked in the oven until bubbly and golden on top.
If you like your codfish baked with lots of olive oil, garlic and herbs, you should try bacalhau à lagareiro. This dish features a whole or large piece of codfish baked in the oven with these ingredients and sometimes potatoes. The name lagareiro refers to the person who works in an olive oil press (lagar), implying that the dish uses a generous amount of this delicious liquid gold.
Another comfort food that involves codfish is bacalhau com natas (codfish with cream), which is made of layers of shredded codfish, fried potatoes, onions, garlic and cream sauce, baked in the oven until golden and bubbly. This dish is creamy and indulgent, and can be served with a green salad or some bread to soak up the sauce.
One more codfish dish that you should definitely try is bacalhau espiritual (spiritual codfish), which is a specialty of Porto. It is similar to codfish with cream, but it also includes carrots, ham, cheese and bread crumbs. It is named after a convent where it was supposedly invented by the nuns, who used the ingredients they had at hand to create this delicious dish.
These are just some of the many ways to sample codfish in Portugal, but there are many more to discover. Codfish is a fish that can be cooked in endless ways, and each region and family has its own recipes and secrets.
The codfish awaits!
As we drop anchor on this cod-laden journey through Portugal, it's clear that codfish is more than just a dish; it is an emblem of heritage. From the maritime tales of yore to the fragrant kitchens of modern-day Lisbon, this salted sensation has been the steadfast companion of generations. In a land where cod is king, evading it is as futile as trying to sail the seven seas in a teacup! With the knowledge you have gathered from this guide, you are now an adept sailor in the sea of Portuguese menus. Navigate with confidence and sample the symphony of flavors. May the cod be with you!