Salt cod with tomatoes and black olives

Salt cod – not hugely popular in the UK but an absolutely brilliant thing to cook with – so long as you know how to prepare it.

Salt cod is one of those foods that predates the invention of refrigeration. Salting goes back centuries and in the past was pretty much the only way, along with smoking and air-drying, that you could preserve food, especially fish for long periods of time. Allegedly, dried cod (known as Stockfish) was introduced to the rest of Europe by Norse Vikings in the 9th century, but salt cod is closely associated with the Atlantic fishing industry that developed in Europe at the end of the 15th century, pioneered by fleets that sailed from the Basque ports of northern Spain and from Portugal to the fishing area known as the Grand Banks to the east of Newfoundland. The excellent book “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” by Mark Kurlansky tells the story and is well worth reading.

Anyway, salting preserved the catch on the long journey back to Europe and salt cod is still a popular dish in Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, as well as featuring in Jamaican cuisine too.

The most important thing with salt cod is getting the salt out of the fish and getting water back into it. The raw material looks a bit daunting to anyone who has never encountered it before;

but it isn’t really a problem. What you have to do is wash off the loose salt under the cold tap and then soak the salt cod for about 24 hours in cold water, changing the water at least twice. Then, what you have is a lot less salty and a lot more pliable. At this point you can cook the fish in some water with the addition of a couple of bay leaves and some black peppercorns. You definitely do not need to add any salt to the water.

Just bring it to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer it for about 20 minutes. Then, turn off the heat and let it cool in the water. At this point you need to skin the fish, remove all the bones and it is ready to use.

There are lots of different recipes for what is variously known as bacalhau (Portuguese), morue (French), bacalao (Spanish), bakaiļao (Basque), bacallà (Catalan), bakaliáros (Greek), Kabeljau (German), baccalà (Italian) and many other names.

The version I chose to make is essentially a French one, Morue à la Provençale, which has many variations but which is essentially salt cod cooked in a tomato, garlic, onion and black olive sauce. Some recipes don’t include garlic and others use white wine and bake everything in the oven, but mine is a simple one to cook on the hob. I suppose that adding some Piment d’Espelette and some chopped green and red peppers to the sauce might make the dish into a Basque one, Morue à la basquaise.

First, coat your prepared pieces of soaked and poached salt cod in flour and fry them in olive oil until they become lightly golden on the outside. Set aside on kitchen paper to drain.

Fry finely-chopped onion in olive oil and add in chopped fresh or tinned tomatoes (I used a mixture of both), a pinch of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, a couple of bay leaves, and a splash of water, stir and simmer until reduced. Stir in a few stoned black olives, a handful of chopped parsley and the salt cod and continue to cook until the cod is warmed through. That is it.

Serve with crusty French bread and a well-chilled dry rosé wine.

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