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Dry salt cod or Bacalao as it is known in Spain is still eaten extensively in many European Mediterranean countries, including Spain. The cod, usually from Iceland or Norway is brought to northern Spanish shores where it is salted and cured. In the past, the fish used to be air cured hanging on wooden frames called fish flakes near the sea but in modern times different methods are used.

Generations ago when there was no electricity to power fridges or freezers, salt curing was the only way to preserve fish and even until recently this was still a necessity for many small poor Spanish pueblos. The Bacalao which resembled flat grey bats could be found hanging on lines in small village shops which were often just the front room of someone's house. Even today Bacalao is still sold this way although it is also available in various other forms such as wrapped in plastic or vacuum packed. You can also buy as well as the whole fish, pieces of the whole fish and the 'lomo' which is the tender fleshy fillets. Village women did and still do buy Bacalao in abundance and they always buy the whole fish or portions of it which sometimes appears from underneath the counter to be cut up as requested. Elderly Spanish women know what they want and this is Bacalao at its best.

Even today, when fresh fish is plentiful Bacalao is still as popular as it was generations ago whether in small Spanish pueblos or fine modern restaurants. Perhaps the popularity of Bacalao has remained because of its unique uncompromising flavour or maybe because of the vast array of exciting dishes which can be prepared using it, all of them delicious.

The trick when choosing a quality piece of Bacalao is to go for the whole pice which has the skin and bones or get a cut from the whole fish as it has the most intense flavour and best texture. A good piece of Bacalao will be slightly grey white in colour, never yellow and although it is dried it should not be stiff but slightly pliable.

In order to get the best out of salt cod it must be prepared properly and that means first cleaning it in running water and then placing it into a dish and covering it with water. The Bacalao must be kept covered and left in a cold place to soak for between 24 and 48 hours with water changes at least three times a day. To test the degree of saltiness, taste a little piece after about 24 hours and leave to soak a little longer if necessary. Remember though never salt any dish made with Bacalao until you taste it at the end of cooking.

Bacalao goes exceptionally well with a variety of ingredients but especially tomatoes and dried red peppers. It is extremely versatile and can be used to make many different tapas dishes as well as main meals and soups and stews. Below are some of our favourite Bacalao dishes.

  • Bacalao al ajo arriero - A recipe which remains unchanged from times when mules were used in Spain to carry seafood from the coasts. Prepared with lots of garlic and tomatoes, this dish was served up in the ancient equivalent of truck stops.
  • Biscay style Bacalao - A lovely filling spicy dish with a beautiful deep red sauce of dried peppers traditionally cooked in large earthenware dishes over open fires.
  • Bacalao al pil-pil - Similar to the tapas bar favourite gambas al pil-pil. This chilli garlic cod dish is served still sizzling in the cazuela with lots of fresh bread.
  • Salt cod fritters - A truly delightful dish reminiscent of days gone by but extremely popular as a modern day tapas dish.


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Published 29 February 2008

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