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Some call it an old friend. If we were in any other place in the world, you would think we were talking about a dog. But we are in Lisbon, and without doubt here it refers to cod, or “Bacalhau” in Portuguese.
We could compare the pride with which the French talk about their cheese with that the Portuguese have for their cod dishes. They claim to have a different recipe for all 365 days of the year. But if that seems a rather elevated figure, you will be surprised to hear that the “Bacalhau” Academy in Lisbon recently carried out an inventory which turned up 1001 different recipes using this fish. If you do your maths, you will realise that you could spend more than two and a half years eating cod daily without having the same dish twice. Incredible, isn’t it?
Cod, however, is a cold water fish that inhabits the coasts of Iceland, Norway and New Foundland. It is prepared in a highly specialised way, dried and treated for several days so it keeps its tenderness and delicious flavour.
Lisbon’s relationship with cod is historic and comes from the time the Romans presided over the city. In this period Lisbon was renowned for its fish salting areas and exported to all points of the empire.
However, it was in the 13th century after an increase in trade with the Danish crown that cod really became predominant in Portuguese cooking.
What’s more, in a country with a strong religious tradition, the consummation of cod kept people’s faith during fasting, saints’ days and other obligations of the liturgy.
Among the many well-known dishes is “Pastel de Bacalhau”, a kind of cake similar to a doughnut served in bars with aperitifs. You can also find “Bacalhau com natas”, which is a gratinated savoury crumble with béchamel, as well as the famous “Bacalhau à Brás” or “Bacalhau a lo Blas”, a dish that contains black olives. It is said that this last dish was invented in an old tavern in the Bairro Alto area of “Blas”. Probably the most well-known of cod dishes is “Bacalhau Gomes de Sá”, comprising of milk, potatoes and onions. Its name comes from its creator, a former trader from Porto who later became a chef.
You can try this national dish in restaurants, taverns and bars throughout the city and you shouldn’t go home without tasting it. If, however, you prefer to get in the kitchen yourself and invent a new, still unthought-of recipe, then go ahead. You will find whole cod, dried and with its skin and bones intact, in abundance. Choose which you want and the seller will slice it into pieces for you.
Whether you want to buy anything or not, make sure you walk down street of “Rúa do Arsenal”, near the “Cais do Sodré” station. This lovely street is full of small grocers, shops and stands selling “Bacalhau”. Displayed on trays, in different sizes, cuts and of varying qualities, cod is what everyone comes here for.
Despite its strong smell, you mustn’t miss the chance to sample this Lisbon classic.
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