Terra do Bacalhau:
Part 1 (Iceland)

Terra do BacalhauBy Sigfús Eymundsson (1837 – 1911) – Scanned from “Þór Magnússon (1976). Ljósmyndir Sigfúsar Eymundssonar Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík.” page 73.

There are dinners you sit down to, and without even eating anything, you are connected to a history that extends out of sight, and which brings the world closer in a way that distends what you think of time and space. And like I said, you haven’t eaten anything yet. I had arrived into Iceland a few hours earlier and found myself in Snaps, a rather uppity, and I mean that in a good way, restaurant that had the right mix of tourists – of which there are a lot in 101 Reykjavik – and locals, eating steaks and fish and swigging wine. Also on the menu is baccala. This is what I’m talking about: Icelanders don’t necessarily eat salted fish very much as cooked courses, not as much as Italians and certainly not as much as the Spanish and Portuguese, and yet the production of salted codfish is a huge industry, as big as the tourism that is so hard to miss when visiting Iceland it feels like it’s punching you in the face. Rather, in Iceland, it is eaten cold and as a kind of snack, much like dried meat. Apparently, it is very good with butter but the smell on the other hand, can take some getting used to.

My first introduction to this geographically far reaching food phenomena was on the docks of Oslo, day laboring as a stevedore, and man handling boxes of pungent, salted dried cod, into refrigerated containers bound for Portugal and Brazil. Klippfisk is what my Norwegian colleagues called it, translating it for me so I understood it to mean ‘cliff fish’, as in days gone by the fish would be gutted and laid out on cliffs near the sea to dry in the sun and the open air. At the time I would have been hard pressed to make a connection of any sort between countries such as Norway and Iceland with the countries laying on the direct opposite end of the continent. But as it turns out the history of salted cod fish has long connected the Mediterranean people with the fishing communities of the far north, stretching as far as to Newfoundland in the in the 1400s. It basically makes up a key example of the ‘triangular trade’ that took place between the New and Old worlds and was the first major commodity to be traded in a huge arc that stretched all the way from the Caribbean, to the north east coastline of America and Canada, to Iceland, Norway and then down to the Iberian peninsula and beyond to West Africa.

And still you haven’t even eaten anything yet.

Such a widely travelled food staple cannot but draw out the imagination. For the Portuguese, as they explored the apparently endless Atlantic and fished cod and traded in salted stockfish to take back home, they were in a sense chasing a mythically endless supply of foodstuff that was quickly becoming a national cuisine. There is no better example of a piece of man’s imagination entering super nova mode than a phantom island, and this food stuff created one as long ago as 1508 when ‘Terra do Bacalhau’ appeared on a chart and subsequent maps had it appear in various iterations past the Azores, pre-dating Columbus’ voyage and possibly representing Newfoundland.

A quick online search reveals the plethora of names given to salted cod:

bacalhau (Portuguese), bacalao (Spanish), bakaiļao (Basque), bacallà (Catalan), μπακαλιάρος, bakaliáros (Greek), Kabeljau (German), baccalà (Italian), bakalar (Croatian), bakkeljauw (Dutch), “makayabu” (Central and East Africa). Other names include ráktoguolli/goikeguolli (Sami), tørfisk/klippfisk/clipfish (Scandinavian), stokvis/klipvis (Dutch), saltfiskur (Icelandic), morue (French), saltfish (Caribbean), bakaljaw (Maltese), “labardan” (Russian)

I realize as I sit in Snaps restaurant in Iceland, without even having tried the baccalo on the menu, that I’m navigating a course around this phantom island; the next week I will also be in Lisbon, Portugal, and will be chasing down the dish there, collapsing the space time continuum in an oddly historical way for a mindless, 21st century travel, which by its very nature, is little more than tourism.

But then, as ever, this is not a tourism article. Do not go to Snaps restaurant in Reykjavik. But do eat salted codfish at some point in your life.

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