Cod in Portugal is known as the “faithful friend”! It is our faithful friend because in times of war it was there to feed the people, in times of crisis and hunger (and we know how common they were) was the staple food, in times of fast imposed by religion was the alternative to eating meat. Cod (bacalhau) has accompanied Portugal throughout much of its history, but especially from the 19th century to the present day. It is even said that we have 1001 ways to make cod, or that there is at least one cod recipe for each day of the year.
This curious relationship between the Portuguese and cod was well put by the famous writer Eça de Queiroz “My novels at heart are French, as I am in almost everything a Frenchman – except in a certain sincere background of sadness lyric, which is a Portuguese characteristic, in a depraved taste for the fado, and in the simple love of the cod with onions. ”
But how does a country facing the sea turn to a dry fish that is not even caught on its coast? We will try to explore why it became so important and the abundant consumption of dried cod by the Portuguese.
History of Cod in Portugal
The Pioneers of using Cod were the Vikings who fished it in abundance in the cold seas near the Nordic countries. In addition to consuming it, the Vikings also traded cod with the rest of Europe, especially England and Flanders. At that time the Vikings dried the fish in the open air until it hardened in order to preserve it and then consumed it on the long trips they made.
In Portugal, the consumption of cod started in the 14th century – there were trade treaties between Portugal and England in which Portugal exchanged salt for cod. And in the mid-1500s, Portugal started fishing for cod in “Terra Nova” (Canada). It is believed that the Portuguese began to fish cod in the “Terra Nova” by mistake, in an attempt to find the counter coast of India the Portuguese sailed westwards facing “Terra Nova” and Greenland. They realized that, in addition to not being on the Indian coast, it was a very favorable area for cod fishing.
But Cod fishing by the Portuguese in “Terra Nova” didn’t last long, in the 16th-century Portuguese crews were practically expelled from Terra Nova by British and French corsairs. Fishing was then dominated by them.
Until the 19th century, in Portugal, cod was not consumed on a large scale, it was food for the wealthy classes – the royal house, the Aristocracy, and the hospitals of Misericórdia. Cod was consumed more routinely inland, as sardines were eaten on the coast.
The large-scale consumption of cod began in the 19th century – it was easy to preserve and transport to the interior of Portugal, unlike fresh fish. Thus, it started to get into Portugal’s diet.
The supply of cod in Portugal was almost a monopoly of the British who were the main exporter of cod to Portugal, it was called “English cod”. Portugal only began to venture into cod fishing from 1885 onwards with Companhia de Pescarias Lisboneses, a company with private capital. But the fishing was uncertain and highly taxed, with Portugal having to import much of the cod.
Cod during Estado Novo
The consumption of Bacalhau emerged exponentially with Estado Novo (Portuguese dictatorship of the 20th century), from 1920. Until now Portugal imported most of the cod it consumed. In Portugal, fishing for cod and other fish was disorganized, with limited investment, and very irregular. Basically, the fishing companies didn’t work, and the people were hungry.
Taking this into account, Salazar reformulates the cod issue, centralizes the organization of cod fishing on the state, fosters the creation of cooperatives, and cartelizes the supply. The creation of the famous Bacalhau Campaign has as its main objective the substitution of its import, the reduction of external dependence, and guaranteeing the country’s food supply. Cod was considered “bread of the tides”.
This codfish campaign instigated by the Estado Novo is relatively successful. In 1934, Portugal fishes 11% of the cod consumed, but it raised to a maximum peak in the 50s and 60s, fishing 70 to 80% of the cod consumed.
In order to ensure that cod is the national food, several cod campaigns travel to Terra Nova in semi-motorized sailing boats and fishing by line. The transition to trawling with modern boats was late and slow, which eventually dictated the death of this sector in the 1970s.
How was the Portuguese Cod fishing campaigns?
Fishing in the Portuguese Cod Campaigns was an epic adventure, and the way they did it is so incredible that it looks invented. The method of fishing was angling, the fishermen went in a small boat (a dory) and in the middle of the sea, they launched a line composed of hundreds of hooks with bait, and then they pulled the cod into the dory. At the end of the day, or when the dory was full, they would return to bacalhaeiro.
In 1934 the Cod Campaign created by the Estado Novo was first sent to the sea. The cod fishing season lasted about 6 months, it started in April or May and when the codfish were full they returned. The cod-fishing fleet (the lugres) started their trip in Belém, Lisbon, where they were blessed with a solemn mass, a big party was held and they left for Terra Nova and Greenland. The lugres were sailing boats and semi-motorized sailboats, which carried the dories, small wooden boats used for angling. Each lugre had the capacity to carry between 900 and 950 tons of salted cod.
The dories were drawn by the fisherman, who then personalized them to his liking. The wooden boat was simple, with only a couple of oars and a sail. At around 5 am the boats were dropped at sea and the fishermen sailed hundreds of meters away from the “mother ship”. When the dories were loaded with cod, they would return and count the cod. Then you had to treat and remove the pin bones of the cod. The fish had to be wide open, to be salted in the cellar. This process was very important, if the cod was not well-salted, it would contaminate the whole stock. When the whole process was over they called it a day, the next day the fishermen returned to the sea.
This type of fishing was hard and dangerous work, fishermen had to face the wind and waves on the high seas, the danger of hitting an iceberg, and the frequent fog. Many were unable to return to the ship and died alone on the high seas.
In addition to these dangers during World War II, Portugal, which was a neutral country and did not cease cod fishing. When crossing the Atlantic Ocean, two cod-fishing ships were sunk by submarines, Maria de Gloria and Delães. After that event, ships started to be painted white with the name and nationality well visible, thus becoming known as the “white fleet”. This agreement with the Allies made it possible for bacalhau to circulate in the Atlantic Ocean without being affected.
Although angling fishing is not a Portuguese invention, at that time the Portuguese were the only ones to practice it. The remaining European countries began using trawlers to fish cod in the 1920s, never returning to other models of fishing.
In Portugal, the use of trawlers only started in the 40s, having reached 17 trawlers in the 50s, but it never reached adequate levels. In addition to not using trawlers, we also used semi-motorized sailboats that, despite being spectacular boats, were no longer the most appropriate. This type of fishing was archaic and inefficient, not to mention that it was extremely dangerous and exhausting.
Whenever I think of these fishermen in their small dories on the high seas in a hostile environment, I see them as heroes. A small boat in the middle of the ocean equipped only with a fishing line in order to catch as much cod as they could while facing all the dangers of those seas…
It is difficult to judge the past with today’s knowledge, but it seems to have been much more an act of stubbornness of a dictatorship, who did not want to admit its flaws. We will never know what would have happened if it had been done differently… if there had been adequate investment in fleet modernization and safety.
Cod in Portugal in today’s world
1974 dictates the last year in which a fleet of codfish sail to Terra Nova, coinciding with the fall of the dictatorship in Portugal. Cod fishing in Portugal was obsolete. It was only possible while they were able to recruit men for fishing, provide cheap credit to shipowners, and artificially contain cod prices so that national cod would sell.
Furthermore, since the 1960s the rules had changed, with the end of freedom on the seas and the prohibition of overfishing. The restrictions of the European Community’s common fisheries policy began to emerge and in 1992 the closure of large banks by the Government of Canada limiting fishing in the Arctic.
However, today we still love cod, there is no way around it. Only now we eat cod from Norway – 70% of the cod we eat comes from Norway and we consume 20% of the world cod. We still have some codfish ships to fish in the economic zone of Norway and in the Svalbard Sea, but the cod fishing quota for the Portuguese is very small.
Drying and Salting cod
From the past to the present day, the cod curing process begins in codfish ships. After the catch, the fish is scaled – the ventral cut of the cod is made, removing the previous two-thirds of the spine and remains of the swimming bladder. The fish is open with the traditional and characteristic codfish aspect. The fish has then washed to remove all remains of entrails and blood clots resulting from bleeding. It is immediately salted by covering the ventral part with enough salt to guarantee the efficiency of the process. It is then stacked in consecutive layers until the vats are filled. To finish the process, the cod is subjected to pressing for at least 30 days. Nowadays the fish is kept in a cold room (10 ± 2ºC) until it reaches land. This cod is called Green Cod.
After arriving at land, the green cod is washed to remove all the salt and is dried to dehydrate the fish. This process is called breaking. Nowadays, drying is done in greenhouses for two to four days at temperatures ranging from 18 to 21ºC, with a relative humidity of the air that varies between 45 to 80%. Experts say that dehydration should not exceed 30% humidity.
Cod is often frozen in the open sea and only afterward is it salted. To do this, first, it has to be defrosted then the head is cut straight, not giving the traditional aspect of the fish, and there may be some ailments in the meat along the spine area.
The process of salting cod and then drying in the open air started on the Basque coast in Spain. Portugal, influenced by northern Spain, made this healing process its own and perfected it.
In the past, cod drying was done outdoors in the Algarve, Setúbal, Figueira da Foz, Aveiro and Viana do Castelo. It was usually a job done by women who spread the fish on easels tilted towards the sun. At the end of the afternoon, the cod was collected and pressed on a large wooden board with the skin of the cod facing downwards.
There is also the so-called yellow curing that was most desired by connoisseurs in which the cod was dried without being placed directly in the sun, and whenever the sun was too intense it was collected. This made the Cod look yellowish-brown to the cod, it seemed smoked without being. This was a healing process widely used in England.
If this is a theme that you enjoy, we recommend visits to the Gil Eannes Museum-Ship in Viana do Castelo and the Maritime Museum of Ílhavo. Much of the information collected for this article was obtained from the books of Álvaro Garrido, a great specialist of Bacalhau in Portugal.
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