The Mediterranean’s fish have been depleted and its sea polluted to a point where local catches in many areas have become tragically sparse. It is the same the whole world over, but the Mediterranean is comparatively small, and contained by too many countries hungry for its resources. The result has been devastating. Varieties that have always been associated with the Mediterranean - like tuna, red and grey mullet, John Dory and sardines — are increasingly caught farther afield, with more and more fish coming in from Brazil and the Seychelles. However, for hundreds of years the voracious appetite of Mediterranean countries for fish has been partly satisfied by distant netting grounds, with salt cod the most obvious example.
Drying and salting, either separately or in combination, are - along with smoking - the most ancient forms of food preservation known to man. Wind-drying of meat and fish still features in the Cantonese diet, as it has done for thousands of years. Bombay duck, the small sea fish sun-dried in that Indian city, is still a pungent and traditional accompaniment to curry dishes, though not for the faint-hearted. Bonito, a large mackerel-like game fish, is dried and flaked to make dashi broth, an essential ingredient in Japanese cooking. Salt-pickled and dried Mediterranean fish, like anchovies, sturgeon, tuna and swordfish from the Caspian and Black Seas and tuna hearts from Spain and southern Italy, were luxury foods in ancient Rome. Over a thousand years ago, Atlantic and North Sea cod was caught by fishermen from the Mediterranean countries, heavily salted in barrels and taken back to the hotter climes of the south, establishing a culinary tradition which is still evident in the Mediterranean diet in dishes like brandade de morue and bacalao.
In the age of canning, deep-freezing and sous-vide, historic treatments for preservation of perishable foods are today used principally for the unique flavours and textures they impart. Think of smoked salmon and lightly cured kippers. Both are exposed briefly to salt first and then to a relatively cold smoking over oak to cure them. In their original form, they were coarse by comparison. The red herring of popular reference, for example, lent itself to analogy because it was so salty, so smoky and so strong-tasting that it dominated any other flavour and drew attention to itself.
Pretty much any fish can be salted and dried, though when this is done traditionally, as with salt cod, the resulting board-hard flesh needs lengthy rehydration in running water before it is palatable. Three days in cold water would be typical. Salt cod has enjoyed a vogue in chic restaurants in recent times, making its rather heavy presence felt in reworkings of dishes like fish cakes, where little benefit is perceivable over the fresh alternative. And, if cod is not as fresh as it should be, then a winning option is good-quality frozen cod fillet, which continues to beat non-frozen ‘fresh’ cod in blind tastings.
One way of experiencing the flavour benefits of preserved fish without the aggravation of rehydrating one of those wooden blocks from an Italian delicatessen is to try salting cod yourself.
Before you can eat commercial dried cod it needs to have lengthy soaking in cold water. The best way to do it is by leaving the fillets in a basin with water trickling in from the cold tap for 24 hours. If this is not possible, then change the water as often as you can manage over a 24-hour period. Test for saltiness by cutting a thin slice from the centre of a fillet and chewing it. If it is still too salty then continue soaking, and check every hour until you are happy with the taste. You can now cook it any way you would cook fresh cod — grilling, broiling, sauteing, roasting or in a fish broth or chowder. It is particularly delicious marinated in fresh lemon or lime juice and served raw on a bed of dressed rocket with borlotti beans.
© 1995 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.