Mmm… bacalao… Just the thought of that pungent, spicy stew of dried cod, stewed tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, garlic and onions makes me want to put a pot on right now. Rich in flavor but low in fat, the layered complexity of this dish is a welcome change from many other foods found so far north.
Bacalao, and more specifically klippfisk (the salted, dried white fish that’s the base of bacalao), has become a really fashionable dish as of recent time. Served at dinner parties, at restaurants in big cities and at food festivals, this peasant dish is the new darling of foodies and more popular than ever. While it may have experienced a lull while I was growing up (in fact, my mom was one of the few I knew who made this dish), it has certainly resurrected itself as one of the most requested dishes in Norway today.
The popular XL Diner in Ålesund, specializing in a multitude of different bacalaos and gets rave reviews!
When you think of ingredients like garlic and piri-piri, you hardly connect these to Norwegian cuisine. Spicy foods are not typical of Norway, we tend to be accustomed to milder, simpler flavors. So how did this dish become so popular in Norway?
Dried fish has been a commodity for many hundred years for Norway, most likely even back to the Viking age. “Klippfisk”, which has added salt to the dried fish, is a newer phenomenon, probably around 300 years old. Salt, dried cod is called “klippfisk” in Norwegian, and comes from the word “klippe”, which is Norwegian for the rocks by the sea. The fish was left on these rock to dry. Other methods are used for drying the fish today, but it’s a common theory that the best fish is the one that is left to dry out in the sun.
It was the Spaniards, more notably the ones from the Basque region, who invented klippfisk while fishing for cod in the seas of Newfoundland, Canada and other international coastlines. The Spanish were fishermen, much like the Norwegians, and while the Norwegians would eat dried fish, the Spanish were more fortunate and had great access to salt, and consequently started to add salt to the fish to preserve it.
It was a Dutchman however, who started klippfisk production in Norway, not a Spaniard. Jappe Ippe was his name, and he saw a great opportunity to sell klippfisk along the windy coast of north-western Norway. Cold, windy conditions is necessary for production and drying of klippfisk, and Norway had plenty of that! He bought several farms for this purpose, but perhaps went too big, too soon. After 10 years, the Dutch banks would no longer lend him any more money because the war had ended in Holland and they needed the funds at home, and Jappe Ippe was forced to shut down. Although not successful in realizing his big business plan, a seed was planted, and the Scottish followed suit and ran the klippfisk industry through the 18th century. Another interesting fact I found through researching, was that foreigners installed a law preventing the Norwegians from gaining the knowledge of how to produce klippfisk. They wanted to keep the monopoly on this commodity and as a result, they installed long jail times, even the death penalty for people who broke this law. Finally, in the 19th century, the Norwegians took over the production and many families took on side jobs drying fish for larger producers worldwide. With the men being out at sea, this often became a job for the women. The fish was rinsed in the sea after drying, and with the women lacking the right shoe gear to stand in the water, they regularly were bare feet – a cold experience in the middle of winter!! The money earned from this work were thus handled by the women, who would decide how to spend this extra income.
Originally, Kristiansund was the leading city for klippfisk commerce, but later, Ålesund on Sunmøre became the capital of klippfisk as the fish gradually were depleted further north. Ålesund is where the traditional drying of the fish on the rocks were replaced with electrical drying indoors. This was also more efficient than the traditional drying on the rocks method practiced in Kristiansund, a town that struggled financially and where businesses had trouble getting financing to expand and modernize. Having indoor locations for drying, the fishermen in Ålesund were also not dependent on the weather, and all in all become more competitive in the end. Nevertheless, Kristiansund is still regarded as the ‘klippfisk’ town in Norway today.
Besides Norway, Iceland and the Pharaoe Islands are two of the other largest klippfisk exporters in the world. Spain, Portugal and also Italy are the biggest markets for dried cod exports, as well as Brazil in South America. Mexico and the Dominican Republic should also be mentioned as big consumers of klippfisk.
Making klippfisk is a very laborious process and can take 2-3 months. The fish is scaled, thoroughly cleaned and the backbone is removed so that it can be spread out into a triangle before being placed in a salt solution for about 3-4 weeks. The fish will firm up by the salt, and this is when it’s ready to be rinsed and put up for drying. As mentioned, rocks by the sea or in the mountains were used to dry the fish in the old days, but now special drying chambers are used. After the drying process, it is placed into a cool storage space, where it will remain until it is shipped out. Before cooking it, the fish has to be placed into water to remove some of the saltiness, usually a time period of 12 hours – 2 days, depending on the size of the fish. Make sure the skin is removed, and place a rack at the bottom of the container so the fish does not touch the bottom (this is because the salt will sink to the bottom). The water should be changed several times during the soaking period.
Klippfisk can be made from cod, pollock, cusk (brosme), haddock or ling. Because it is dried and salted, it keeps for a long time and is extremely full of flavor. When watered out before cooking, it expands, so a little goes a long way. Naturally low in fat, with a high protein content and made in a way that preserves a ton of vitamins and minerals, it makes for a very healthy food as well. Used in the famous stew bacalao, it is also sauteed, baked, used in soups and made into dumplings.
This post would not be complete without a great recipe for the internationally acclaimed ‘bacalao’. I borrowed the below recipe from the winner of one of the numerous bacalao competitions that goes on yearly in Norway, Lise Brændeland.
With that, I leave you with a little taste of Norway, via Portugal, Spain, Scotland, Holland, Brazil… and the list goes on 🙂
2 lbs klippfisk
3 lbs Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced into 1 inch cubes
3 medium Spanish onions, halved and sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 cans chopped tomatoes
1 small can tomato puree
2 red bell peppers, diced small
½ small jar black olives, pitted
3 red chilis (of your choosing)
½ tsp cayenne
2 cups fish stock
1 stick butter
olive oil for sautéing
salt, pepper to taste
Leave the salt dried cod (klippfisk) in water for 36 hours, changing the water 3 times throughout. Cut the fish up in 2 ½ inch cubes/pieces.
Mix the fish stock with the tomato puree and the cayenne pepper. Combine the onions and garlic and set aside.
Pour some olive oil into a large heavy pot (like Creuset), covering the bottom. Heat up until oil is hot, then place the pot in cold water to cool the oil. Layer the following items in three layers: potatoes, klippfisk, onion/garlic mix, 1 can chopped tomatoes, bell peppers, 1 crushed chili pepper. Pour fish stock/tomato puree mixture on top at the end. Divide the butter into three parts and push down along the sides of the pot. Bring the bacalo to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low, cover and let it simmer for one hour, then take lid off and simmer for another 30 minutes. Shake the pot now and then to avoid anything burning at the bottom. Serve with flatbrød or baguettes!
Other delicious dishes using klippfisk as a base will be covered in the future… believe me, they will be worth the wait!