So I’m going to get this out of the way, in case it wasn’t already obvious: I didn’t eat any bacalhau when I was in Iceland recently. One thing led to another and, you’re just going to have to trust me on this, upon ordering the dish I was so much looking forward to trying out in Iceland, where it is sourced and produced, the order was cancelled by a group who wished to whisk myself and my dinner partner away to a home cooked meal in their house. They talked with the waitress and cancelled our orders. We finished our beers quickly. We scurried out of Snaps and went forth and enjoyed the perfectly amiable, ironclad certainty of Icelandic hospitality.
I may as well go for full disclosure: I’m aiming here for the kind of food writing that is only ever on point by being wholly committed to its own tangents and diversions, by making sure the introduction to the topic at hand is in fact as long as the amount the topic actually gets to itself, the introduction being itself a kind of musing on the context and backstory to the food qua food. This is a good thing because food is after all 50% context and backstory, and that’s what the idea of a contemporary food lab qua The Contemporary Food Lab should strive to provide, offering up as starter, main course and dessert the faces, personality, anecdotes and delectable facts behind food in all its current world-destroying glory. Every little food article helps, to misquote the behemoth Tesco, the grand pantry of Britain. And this all comes back to my formative experience of reading food journalism of any description, and I mean that: besides from some very oblique references to some stolen eggs and potatoes in my favourite childhood novel, I never encountered food in much of the reading I did when I was younger – itself a topic of some future article. But when I was a young teenager I found myself reading with a confused fascination the column by AA Gill in The Sunday Times every weekend. This was an introduction to a world of London restaurants and eateries populated by the aspiring Middle Class (which at the time, to a young Irish boy, seemed to make up the entire country save the actual floundering Royal Family) and the snooty, pedantic and ever tangential Gill seemed to embody this mass of people wholly. Food, good, upmarket food, and fine dining were a whole country away, or indeed a whole article away, and that is the way Gill, his editors and indeed perhaps the whole country wanted it.
But that was a long time ago, at the end of the 20th century, before Jamie Oliver and McCafés, in a time when it was still cheaper to take the bus to Bristol than it was to fly Ryanair to Barcelona. Because I think what I’m getting at in this article is that northern Europe for a long time lay behind the south in what should be the democracy of fine dining and food. The ‘fine’ in fine dining is about manners and etiquette perhaps more than it is about good food. Arriving into Lisbon after my trip to Iceland, with a stop off in the UK I was finally looking forward to actually achieving what I set out to do: taste the cod that connects the south and north of this abstract tangible thing called Europe.
The Portuguese love cod. They also love to eat out in restaurants and cafes and do so with a waited-upon, daily-menu élan that frankly eludes their counterparts in many other countries. And as pointed out in my previous article, a lot, if not the majority of this cod comes from the North Atlantic, a lot of it processed by Icelandic or Norwegian fisheries and shipped south to Portugal and the wider Mediterranean.
My colleague and I arrived into the city around dinner time and our friendly hotel concierge directed us around the corner to a restaurant where we were promptly sat with the TV on playing soccer and collections of Lisboans having a late evening dinner and it seemed much like many other restaurants I had been in before and since in Lisbon. The menu had two options for bacalhau – fried or boiled and I went with the boiled. The vino verde arrived and some succulent fatty cheese and rough bread and while that sated us for a moment, it seemed to take an age for the fish to come out. When it did, I have to admit I was less than enthused. The odd thing about bacalhau, well it’s not objectively odd it’s just my opinion, is that it emits a quite unpleasant smell, at least to me. Like the smell one finds at a seaside pier where fishing boats have over years laid out sea catches and the dried brine accumulates. But it does not taste like the sea! The best way to eat the boiled variety is slightly mashed with lashings of olive oil. To be honest, I had a strong case of food envy and ended up eating most of my colleague’s fried version. But the best bacccala I had during the trip was actually in a bakery, just as it was closing for the night, I popped in to buy a Sagres beer and I got a one euro fried bacalhau frittata, Friscioeu de baccalà. A juicy, moist mix of fish meat with egg tempura. Perhaps all good things do come to those who fry….
But that is an unfair place to bring you, dear reader, for this fish is cooked in a vast multitude of ways beyond the three mentioned above. Some say there are 365 ways of cooking bacalhau in Portugal: you could eat it for a year and it would never be the same. This seems to fit with the sheer sense of ubiquity that the food staple has in the country. An unscientific check in the local supermarket resulted in me finding right inside the door a whole wall of the stuff, all fished in the north Atlantic, Norwegian and Icelandic fish.
And what is more, I talked about being connected to unseen histories, mythical lands named after this fish. In between my aborted meal in Snaps and my consummated bacalhau affair in Lisbon, I also travelled to Bristol to visit relatives. Bristol is a city that gives another connection to the meal I might have had in Iceland. In the 1400s the Hanseatic league, the international trading organization of northern Europe, moved to cut Bristol off from the cod route between Iceland and the Mediterranean in order to monopolise like it had done on the Herring trade. So it was from Bristol’s well protected harbor that saw John Jay a local merchant backed by a customs official called Thomas Croft launch a ship to look for the mythical island of Hy-Brasil. This was 1480 and cod had by that time become a powerful commodity. But like the Basques the Bristol contingent were wholly silent about the outcome of this expedition. And like Leif Erikson five hundred years before them, the ability to preserve cod allowed them to travel all the way to Newfoundland in under 40 days, where the sea was swarming with cod. Ten years later it was all but obvious to Columbus that he wasn’t the first European to discover North America. The Vikings, the Basque and Bristol merchants had all been there before, they just kept their catch, the entirely new world of terra do bacalhau, a secret.