Salt Cod, The Greek Mountain Fish
I am writing this upon arrival back to Greece, landing on a grey March day, the latest in a string of chilly, wet days that have made it seem like spring will never come. I just finished an exhausting trip to the States, on and off airplanes between NY, Boston, and San Francisco, and when I got back, the traditional March 25th feast of cod, bakaliaros in Greek, was waiting for me.
Salt cod is the fish of the Greek mountains, as local cooks here like to say. It was traditionally sold by itinerant vendors who would ply the countryside hawking the stiff, crusty fillets. Saltcod lasts a long time, and when desalted, cooks up into a delicious, nutritious, tender treat. It has inspired countless Greek dishes, from the classic batter-fried chunks served with skordalia, the Greek garlic sauce, to wonderfully light oven-baked recipes with wine, tomatoes, warm spices, raisins, leeks, and more. Every region in Greece has its cod specialty.
Mostly, Greeks consume cod on two days during Lent, the Annunciation (March 25th) and then again on Palm Sunday. Throughout the year, cod, either in salted or air-dried form, is a taverna staple, too, a classic Greek meze recipe and one of the ouzo mezedes par excellence, served batter-fried into crisp nuggets (our answer to fish sticks) with mercilessly garlicky skordalia, a puree made either with bread or potatoes.
So how did cod, a cold-water, northern fish come to Greece? How did it become so popular in a culture inured to incredibly fresh fish?
The quick answer is that the fasting traditions played a role. On certain days during the long, austere Lenten Fast, during which neither animal products nor fish are allowed, the Church permits one or two dietary transgressions. Fish may be eaten on March 25th then again on Palm Sunday, for example. In coastal regions, fresh fish, not bakaliaro, is still the norm, but throughout the country’s mountainous interior fresh fish was all but impossible to find. So local cooks turned to salt-fish and other cured fish, which was often sold by itinerant merchants.
The cod trade eventually spread eastward from the Atlantic shores of Europe all over the Mediterranean, because the fish provided the same thing it had provided to scores of western European peasants–a cheap, nourishing and, yes, tasty food. The fish that was discovered by the Vikings, commercialized by the Basques and later cornered by the French and English. In fact, the English are largely responsible for cod’s undisputed place in our own culinary repertoire. If trade records between Britain and Greece are any clue, then the English were doing a brisk business bartering cod, which they had access to thanks to their proximity both to the Atlantic and to the North Sea, in exchange for a commodity Greece could in her turn produce with abundance–raisins.
Greek trade statistics from the end of the 19th century corroborate the importance of the tiny dried fruit and also offer insight into the possible reason why salt cod is so much a part of diet in the place where raisins grow most–the Peloponnese. Here, in fact, is the only place in Greece where the two are most often cooked together. Cod plaki with raisins is a kind of national dish, but cod cookery in the Peloponnese hardly stops there. In several parts of the Peloponnesos, but most notably in Kalamata, there are many recipes for dried salt cod served up with either legumes or vegetable stews. I’ve seen the fish cooked with spinach, with squash or squash blossoms, with chard, with fresh string beans, even with eggplants. Cod cooked with dried beans is popular, as are dolmathes (grape leaves) filled with cod.
But the Peloponessos hardly holds the monopoly on bakaliaro cookery in Greece. All over the country, there are dozens of delicious and fascinating recipes that call for this most versatile fish. One of the most interesting is the garlicky brandade of Santorini, modeled after its Provencale cousin and probably brought to the island by the Catholics, who populated several Greek islands when the Venetian Doge governed various parts of the country (the Greeks referred to them generically as the Franks). Other interesting cod dishes are the the savory pies filled with desalted stockfish (air-dried cod, known among the Ionian islanders, where it was most prevalent, as stokofisi). Islanders in Corfu, Cephalonia and elsewhere int he Ionian still make it.
All in all, it’s ironic that the fish, a classic in Aegean Greece and beyond, which was once was known as ftohogianni (“Poor John”), has proven itself to be nimble and adaptable in cuisines far from its own frozen home. Unfortunately, it’s no longer poor man’s fish since cod has been so over-fished and its supplies depleted, that prices have skyrocketed.
It doesn’t have to be March 25th to cook salt cod, of course. Here are a few recipes for inspiring you to work with this delicious, if unlikely, Greek tradition.