Preserved Fish

The Catholic Church and two Genovese Change the Course of History

If you wander through any Italian city long enough, you’ll likely catch a glimpse of dead fish dangling in the open air. Ah! you might exclaim, salt cod! Yes, there is baccalà. There is also stockfish, or stoccafisso as the Italians call it.

Do you know the difference? Baccalà is salt cod. Stockfish is air-dried. They both need quite a bit of soaking before cooking to make them edible.

These preserved fish have allowed Italians living inland to comply with Catholic dietary restrictions since Normans brought them to southern Italy around 1000 AD. The discovery of their processing incented explorers to ply the northern seas for likely climates in coastal places which to process the fish caught en route. Basque and Viking mariners went a long way to supply a burgeoning market. History took a swerve.

Basques were not the first to cure cod. Centuries earlier, the Vikings had traveled from Norway to Iceland to Greenland to Canada, and it is not a coincidence that this is the exact range of the Atlantic cod. In the tenth century, Thorwald and his wayward son, Eirik the Red, having been thrown out of Norway for murder, traveled to Iceland, where they killed more people and were again expelled. About the year 985, they put to sea from the black lava shore of Iceland with a small crew on a little open ship. Even in midsummer, when the days are almost without nightfall, the sea there is gray and kicks up whitecaps. But with sails and oars, the small band made it to a land of glaciers and rocks, where the water was treacherous with icebergs that glowed robin’s-egg blue. In the spring and summer, chunks broke off the glaciers, crashed into the sea with a sound like thunder that echoed in the fiords, and sent out huge waves. Eirik, hoping to colonize this land, tried to enhance its appeal by naming it Greenland. ~ Cod, by Mark Kurlansky

Which brings us to Il Re di Baccalà, the King of Salt Cod: Gaspè San Giovanni. I found some in Rome’s Trifanale Market, the largest in the Eternal City.

Baccalà in a corner of the Mercato Trionfale in Rome

As you can see if you squint to see the prices, you pay a lot more for the king of codfish. Almost double what you pay for Salt Cod from Iceland.

Where does it come from? Canada. The Gaspè peninsula along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River outside Quebec to be precise.

There, Mariners found the perfect fishing grounds within sight of a land with the perfect climate for curing fish.

The “King of Baccala” exists in a world between baccala and stockfish. The brine is secret, but it’s no secret that it uses very little salt compared to regular baccala and here is a season for production of Gaspé Cured, February to June.

So the perfect preserved fish is said to come from Canada, and made its way to Italy. It has a very long history, and that history includes two Genovese.

Then, in 1497, five years after Columbus first stumbled across the Caribbean while searching for a westward route to the spice-producing lands of Asia, Giovanni Caboto sailed from Bristol, not in search of the Bristol secret but in the hopes of finding the route to Asia that Columbus had missed. Caboto was a Genovese who is remembered by the English name John Cabot, because he undertook this voyage for Henry VII of England. The English, being in the North, were far from the spice route and so paid exceptionally high prices for spices. Cabot reasoned correctly that the British Crown and the Bristol merchants would be willing to finance a search for a northern spice route. In June, after only thirty-five days at sea, Cabot found land, though it wasn’t Asia. It was a vast, rocky coastline that was ideal for salting and drying fish, by a sea that was teeming with cod. Cabot reported on the cod as evidence of the wealth of this new land, New Found Land, which he claimed for England. Thirty-seven years later, Jacques Cartier arrived, was credited with “discovering” the mouth of the St. Lawrence, planted a cross on the Gaspe Peninsula, and claimed it all for France. He also noted the presence of 1,000 Basque fishing vessels. But the Basques, wanting to keep a good secret, had never claimed it for anyone. ~ Mark Kurlansky, from his book, “The Cod’s Tale: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World!”

So, If you’re in Rome and have rented an apartment and have a hankering to try the world’s best preserved cod, head over to the Trifonale market in the Prati Neighborhood (where you’ll find cheaper apartments and will be able to afford the King of Baccala).

And if you’re as interested in these uses of Cod as I am, get a copy of Mark Kurlansky’s book: The Cod’s Tale: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World!

Preserved Fish originally appeared on , updated: Feb 26, 2021 © .

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