What the Portuguese do to codfish

One of my favourite things about Christmas in Portugal is the food. Not only are the desserts rich and tasty (that’s another post) but so is the traditional main course. The quintessential Portuguese dish is codfish, which can be cooked in a 1001 ways according to a popular saying and is present in almost every household on Christmas eve. And it is good!

Portuguese codfish has little resemblance with the cod eaten in other countries, such as that used for Fish & Chips in many English-speaking nations. Unlike with other fish, we do not consume codfish fresh: we salt and dry it. In fact, the Portuguese word for codfish — bacalhau — is used internationally (sometimes with a slightly different spelling, bacalao) precisely to describe dried and salted codfish.

The Portuguese started fishing and producing cod in this way over 500 years ago. The reason to salt it and dry it was that of preservation: before refrigerators were available, other techniques had to be used to make sure the fish was edible when fishermen returned to land. The process turned out to add flavour to the fish, and is used to this day.

Today, the online version of Público, a renowned Portuguese newspaper, features an excellent visualisation that explains what is exactly that Portuguese do to codfish, from when fishermen catch it to when it’s ready to eat, describing how they process it on fishing trawlers and then on land. The infographic has text in Portuguese but you should be able to get the gist of it from the images only. If you’d like to know more, I provide the original transcript and a rough translation at the end of the post. Click on the screenshot below to see the infographic on Público’s website (I can’t seem to embed it on the blog):

Screen shot 2011-12-24 at 3.59.29 PM.png

Infographic A Viagem do Bacalhau, by Ana Rute Martins, Cátia Mendonça, Joaquim Guerreiro and José Alves (Source: Público, requires Adobe Flash Player.)

Original transcript (in Portuguese): Do mar ao prato, a viagem do bacalhau

Nadam em cardume da Terra Nova ao Mar da Noruega. Com 2 anos têm 40 cm; 7 anos 70/80 cm — atingem a idade de procriar; 10 anos 1.5 m. Uma fêmea pode por entre 4 a 9 milhões de ovos em bancos de areia e temperatura entre 4 a 8º.

(Depois de pescado) O troteiro degola o peixe e abre a barriga. As vísceras e as guelras são retiradas, assim como parte da espinha. Sai (do escalador) com o seu formato conhecido e é lavado. Desce para o porão, é coberto de sal. Viaja para a doca: Lisboa, Setúbal, Sines.

Chega à fábrica. É curado em paletes durante um mês e meio a 1 ano a 4 graus. É lavado e seco entre 48 a 120 horas à temperatura máxima de 23ºC. Terá de humidade 47% e 1/3 do peso após ser pescado. Está pronto a consumir!

Translation: From sea to plate, the journey of cod

They swim in shoals from Newfoundland to the Norwegian Sea. At 2 years old they are 40cm; at 7 years 70/80 cm — reach reproductive age; at 10 years 1.5 m. A female can lay between 4 to 9 million eggs in sandbars and temperature from 4 to 8 degrees C.

(After being fished) The fisherman decapitates the fish and opens its belly. Viscera and gills are removed, as so is part of the spine. It comes out (of the fish scaler) with its familiar format and is washed. It goes down to the hold and is covered with salt. Travels to the dock: Lisbon, Setúbal, Sines.

Arrives at the factory. It’s cured in pallets for a month and a half to one year at 4 degrees C. It is washed and dried between 48 to 120 hours at a maximum temperature of 23 degrees C. It will have a moisture content of 47% and 1/3 of the weight when caught. It is ready to eat!


One thought on “What the Portuguese do to codfish

  1. Rudy da Costa

    Very nice article. As a Portuguese Canadian living in Portugal, I do not like salted cod when boiled. I prefer it fried or baked. When I am having boiled fish, I prefer fresh fish to salted cod because I find salted cod too strong my taste. That is just me.


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