The first time I tried brandade was at a business event in the South of France. I asked what it was and was told it was mashed up fish, potato and oil by a member of the events team. Sounds strange but actually it is an absolute delight, perfumed with thyme, garlic, with a slight heat from the white pepper and the salt cod? Ooooh the salt cod
Salt cod is cod which has been preserved by drying after salting. Cod which has been dried without salt is stockfish. Salt cod has long been a major export of the North Atlantic region, and has become an ingredient of many cuisines around the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. Dried and salted cod has been produced in Norway, Newfoundland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands for over 500 years, to the time of the European discoveries of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. When explorer Jacques Cartier ‘discovered’ the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in what is now Canada and claimed it for France, he noted the presence of a thousand Basque boats fishing for cod.
Salt cod formed a vital item of international commerce between the New World and the Old, and formed a leg of the so-called ‘triangular trade’. Slowly, it spread around the Atlantic and became a traditional ingredient not only in Northern European cuisine, but also in Mediterranean, West African, Caribbean, and Brazilian cuisines.The drying of food is the world’s oldest known preservation method, and dried fish has a storage life of several years. Traditionally, salt cod was dried only by the wind and the sun, hanging on wooden scaffolding or lying on clean cliffs or rocks near the beach, today it is usually dried indoors with electric heaters.
Drying preserves numerous nutrients, and the process of salting and drying codfish is said to make it tastier. Salting became economically feasible during the 17th century, when cheap salt from southern Europe became readily available to the nations of northern Europe. The method was cheap, the work could be done by the fisherman or his family and the resulting product could be transported easily to market. Consequently, salt cod became part of the staple diet of the populations of Catholic countries on ‘meatless’ Fridays and during Lent.
Dried cod and the dishes made from it are known by many different names, many of them derived from the root bacal-, itself of unknown origin; some of these are: bacalhau (Portuguese), bacalao (Spanish), bakaiļao (Basque), bacallà (Catalan), bakaliáros (Greek), Kabeljau (German), baccalà (Italian), bakalar (Croatian), bakkeljauw (Dutch), “makayabu” (Central and East Africa). Other names include tørfisk/klippfisk/clipfish (Scandinavian), stokvis/klipvis (Dutch), saltfiskur (Icelandic), morue (French), saltfish (Caribbean), toe rag (UK), bakaljaw (Maltese), “labardan” (Russian).
In Norway, there used to be five different grades of salt cod. The best grade was called superior extra. Then came (in descending order) superior, imperial, universal and popular. These names are no longer really used, although some producers still make the superior products. The best klippfisk, the superior extra, is made only from line-caught cod, the skrei, the cod that once a year is caught during spawning. Lower grades are salted by injecting a salt-water solution into the fish, while superior grades are salted with dry salt. The superior extra is dried twice, like Parma ham. Between the two drying sessions, the fish rests and the flavour matures. Before it can be eaten, salt cod must be rehydrated and desalinated by soaking it in cold water for one to three days, changing the water two to three times a day.
In Europe, the soaked and boiled fish is prepared for the table in a wide variety of ways; most commonly with potatoes and onions in a casserole, as croquettes, or as battered, deep-fried pieces. In France, brandade de morue is a popular baked gratin dish of potatoes mashed with rehydrated salted cod, seasoned with garlic and olive oil. In Jamaica, it is the basis of the national dish ackee and saltfish. In Bermuda, it is served with potatoes, avocado, banana and boiled egg in the traditional codfish and potato breakfast. In Liverpool, UK, prior to the post-war slum clearances, especially around the docks, salt fish was a popular traditional Sunday morning breakfast. In some places in Mexico, it is soaked in warm water overnight, dipped in flour, battered in egg and fried. Once the fish is fried with the egg batter, it is then simmered in red sauce and served for Christmas Dinner.
Brandade de morue is a mixture of salt cod and olive oil eaten in winter with bread or potatoes. In French it is sometimes called Brandade de Morue and in Spanish it can be called Brandada de bacalao (‘morue’ being the French name for salt cod and bacalao the Spanish one). Brandade is a specialty of the Roussillon, Languedoc and Provence regions of France, Liguria in Italy and Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia, all Spanish. Similar preparations are found in other Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Portugal and other regions of Spain (for example, atascaburras, which is done with salt cod, olive oil, potato and chestnut) where dried salt cod is also enjoyed. In Minorca (Balearic Islands) sometimes artichokes are added, in Marseilles and Toulon, crushed garlic is added to the dish and potato is added to brandade in France and the Basque Country, but not in Catalonia.
- 200g salt cod, rinsed well
- 2 large baking potatoes, peeled, boiled, and mashed
- 230ml double cream
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- A large pinch of dried ground thyme
- A small pinch of freshly ground cloves
- 60ml extra virgin olive oil
- A large pinch of freshly ground white pepper
- Salt to taste
- 1 potato thinly sliced
- Sunflower oil for deep frying
- A large pinch of pimento
Soak the salt cod in a big bowl of water for three days, changing water twice daily. I know this is time-consuming but it is totally necessary to completely reduce the salt. In a small saucepan, bring the cream, garlic, bay, thyme, and cloves to a gentle simmer for around 10 minutes. Remove bay leaf from the mixture. Place the cream in a blender and blitz until garlic is completely pureed. Drain the cod and place it in another pan, cover with water and bring to a gentle simmer. Drain the cod then place it in the food processor together with the garlic cream sauce and mashed potatoes and blitz for a minute to ensure all the ingredients are completely combined. Pulse for an additional 30 seconds, adding the olive oil in a slow stream as you do so. Check the seasoning. We are serving ours today with homemade potato crisps. To make quick crisps, peel and thinly slice your potato, pat the slices dry using kitchen paper. Heat some oil in a pan and add the potato slices a few at a time. They take a minute to turn golden. Remove with a slatted spoon, drain and set to one side. To plate, add some of the brandade, a couple of crisps and dust with pimento. Serve.