The day was 5th January 1432. It was approaching mid-morning. The sun had just begun to peak above the horizon. The Venetian merchant Pietro Querini and his crew were on lifeboats. The sailors’ voyage from Crete to Flanders had been cut short by a violent storm in the North Sea, leaving them shipwrecked. Lost at sea for several weeks, they could finally discern land in the brightening distance. Icy winds and snow rendered its appearance less than hospitable, let alone habitable. Querini made a vulgar joke about having reached culi mundi or the ‘arse end of the world’.
Luckily for the Venetians, the seemingly rear-ended island of Røst[i] turned out to be inhabited. And, over the next few months, they would look on in amazement as the local fishermen beheaded, gutted and dried vast quantities of their catch, gadus morhua (Atlantic cod). Querini was particularly impressed by the colossal hesje (wooden racks) along the shoreline, from which the cod were hung in pairs by their tails to dry. The resulting stockfish, hard as wood, retained all the nutrients – protein, vitamins, iron and calcium – from their fresh counterpart. Several centuries previously, this preserved food had sustained the Vikings in their sea voyages from Norway to Iceland, Greenland and Canada. The shipwrecked Venetians, representatives of one of Europe’s most important trading and economic powers of the era, had discovered a valuable new commodity.
In 1497, another plentiful source of Atlantic cod was ‘discovered’ on the banks of Newfoundland. The Lofoten Islanders’ method of preservation of drying, however, did not suit the damp and misty conditions of this terranova. When cheap salt from France, Spain and Portugal became available to the northern European seafaring nations, another method of preservation, salting, was adopted.
Church-imposed giorni di magro or ‘lean days’ – all Fridays, the forty day period of Lent and other important days of religious observance – meant that meat consumption was effectively forbidden for almost half the year. Fish was the permitted substitute for meat. Consequently, there was great demand from the Italian peninsula and islands for cheap, long-lasting stoccafisso (stockfish) and baccalà (salt cod). Italians have become less strict about observing ‘lean’ days and Lent but a Good Friday meal would still be unthinkable without a fish (often baccalà or stoccafisso-based) dish. For this reason, that demand for this once precious foodstuff continues.
The Venetian bacalà mantecato and the Messinese pescestocco a ghiotta are some of Italy’s most famous cod-based dishes. Less well-known but not at all less delicious is the Piedmontese fried salt cod dish with polenta and onions[ii] my mother-in-law is fond of making at this time of year. The cooked onions’ pungent yet sweet notes complement the mild flavoured cod perfectly. It’s also one of those rare dishes that allows the humble old onion to be enjoyed as a vegetable in its own right. This venerdi santo[iii], I’m planning on serving it as a main course. Here is a recipe, inspired by hers and Beppe Lodi’s, for making it. Please note that its three components – baccalà, onions, polenta – all need to be prepared separately, so you may want an extra hand or two in the kitchen. Stirring polenta requires an awful lot of elbow work! There is the option of pre-cooked polenta that is ready in five minutes. In my opinion though, you’ll be sacrificing a lot in taste. Also, you’ll need to do the shopping for this dish a few days before. Salt cod requires 2-3 days of soaking for it to be thoroughly desalinised.
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
- 1600 g water
- 400 g polenta
- 1 kg salt cod, soaked for 2-3 days with frequent water changes
- Flour, for coating the cod
- 500 g onions[iv], sliced
- Olive oil, for frying
Bring water to boil in a large non-stick saucepan. Add salt and polenta meal in a slow and steady stream. Reduce heat to the minimum and cook polenta for 35-40 minutes, ensuring that you stir often with a wooden spoon. Once the polenta is cooked, carefully pour it on a large wooden board to serve.
In the meantime, drain and pat-dry cod with a tea-towel and carefully remove its skin. Cut it into pieces about measuring 6cm x 3cm. Dip pieces into a bowl with flour, ensuring that are coated all over. Heat a frying pan with olive oil and fry each piece of cod until nice and golden on all sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.
Finally, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large and wide non-stick pan. Add sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Leave to simmer on low-medium heat covered. Check onions every few minutes or so to stir them and check their state and colour. When they are golden brown, add the pieces of fried cod to the pan so they absorb the juices and flavour of the rendered onions. Leave to simmer together on low heat until polenta is ready. Transfer cod and onions to a serving dish or directly on top of the polenta.
[i] An island located in the Lofoten archipelago, north of the Norwegian mainland.
[ii] Beppe Lodi calls this dish merluzzo con polenta e cipolle. In Piedmont, the word for fresh cod – merluzzo – is used instead of the term for the preserved type of cod (e.g. baccalà or stoccafisso). In the northeastern regions of Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, you will also find that stockfish is referred to as bacalà (with one c) and not stoccafisso, like elsewhere in Italy. Traditionally, Venice’s bacalà mantecato and Vicenza’s bacalà alla vicentina are made with stockfish, NOT salt cod.
[iii] ‘Good Friday’ in Italian.
[iv] I used cipolle bionde or yellow onions, but I don’t see why you can’t use white or red ones either.