Monday, December 15, 2014

Feast of the 7 Fishes, How Cod Came to Italy and Baccalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod)

Every year on Christmas Eve, many people in and from Southern Italy celebrate The Feast of the 7 Fishes (also known as The Vigil). Anywhere from 7 to 13 fish dishes are prepared for the event. I have always been amused that the idea of fish, the food of abstinence and piety in the Catholic Church, would be celebrated in abundant abandon on this day. There is nothing abstemious about this feast. Tables groan with fish and shellfish made from traditional and non-traditional recipes –– some have been handed down through generations. Guests generally eat and drink till they are nearly comatose.

One of the most popular components of the banquet is cod, a decidedly un-Italian fish that hails from cold Northern waters. Thing is, it was absorbed into Italian cuisine more than 500 years ago. It feels as Italian as... tomato sauce (it predates tomato’s introduction by many decades) The story is a dramatic one.

Pietro Querini

In 1431, Pietro Querini, of the famous Querini Venetian merchant family, set sail from Crete with 3 ships laden with wine and spices headed for Bruges. A horrible storm devastated his fleet and only a few men survived on life boats that drifted thousands of miles across the North Sea where they landed on an island near Røst in Norway (nearly 3000 miles off course).

The natives were terribly hospitable, restoring the sailors to health sharing their cod and, according to legend, sharing their wives as well. Three months later, the Venetians sailed back home with boats laden with dried cod fish that became popular all over Italy

Council of Trent (1545-63) in Santa Maria Maggiore Church

I read at Dalmatia that the connection between cod and the church was cemented in 1561 with the Council of Trent’s condemnation of excessive meat consumption.

The Council, Pasquale Cati (1588)

Fasting was the solution but the rich didn’t want to give up taste without a fight so chefs were ordered to come up with suitably delicious meat-free recipes and 6000 scholars tasted the results.  The Verdict? Fish was a pious choice for the believers and cod was king. The pillar of Italian cuisine, Bartolomeo Scappi, included cod recipes in his 1570 Opera, having prepared them for Pope Pius IV and V.  Given the history, having cod at Christmas seems only natural.

Baccalà Mantecato can be made with all olive oil or oil and milk.  Both styles have long histories.   The original Norwegian creamy cod was doubtless made with milk as it is unlikely olive oil was plentiful on frozen islands.  Cousins of this dish are made in France with cream and potatoes (the divine Brandade) and in various similar preparations in Portugal and Spain.  It really is a European classic at this point.  I make one version or another of this dish every winter (along with another favorite cod recipe, a Cod Cassoulet with fish sausage and mussels in a heavenly cream).

You too can sacrifice for your spirit on Christmas Eve with rich cod cream, straight from Norway to Venice with a small, olive oil detour –– may all punishments be so rich and delicious.

Don't stop there. Sasha at Global Table Adventure has enlisted a few other bloggers to share 7  Fishes dishes with you.  You will want to start your own Feast of 7 Fishes tradition.  Do stop by and cruise their virtual 7 Feast tables, won't you?

Salt Cod Tomato Sauce with Linguine by Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure.
Sicilian Citrus Shark Filets by Amanda Mouttaki, MarocMama.
Sweet and Savory Eel by Laura Kelley at Silk Road Gourmet

Baccalà Mantecato

1 piece of salt cod, 12-16 oz.
*1 c milk
*¼ c cream, optional
1 bay leaf
1c to 2c olive oil (use a fine quality for this as the taste will be very noticeable)
salt and pepper to taste
1 large clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste

fried polenta*

Soak the cod in a few changes of water for 1 or 2 days -- at least overnight.

Remove from the water and rinse. Cut into pieces big enough to fit easily in a saucepan. Put in water to cover and add the bay leaf and ½ c of the milk. Bring to a boil then cover and turn off the heat. Allow to sit, covered, for 20 minutes or so. The fish should be flaky. Reserve some of the cooking water.

Remove the fish and dry a bit. Crumble into processor. Add the oil slowly in a stream with the processor running. Add the garlic.  At this point add the milk/cream or more olive oil, checking for texture. It should appear whipped like heavy cream and smooth. Add extra cooking water if it is too dry and add salt and pepper to taste. It will need salt unless you didn’t soak it for very long. Serve at room temperature with parsley on fried polenta.

*Fried Polenta

For every 1/3 c polenta –– 1 cup water.
I would say every 1/3rd cup makes 3 large rounds or 6 smaller shapes like diamonds.
1 2/3 c should be enough for pound of fish.

Boil water. Add the polenta in a stream while stirring. Stir for 4 minutes at a good high heat. Remove from heat and spread in large oiled sheet pan. Chill for 20 minutes.

Remove and cut into shapes and fry in olive oil.

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La Table De Nana said...

Happy Holidays Deana..
I had heard of the feast of the 7 fishes..but you brought it to life.

Sasha Martin said...

This sounds SO good - simple and elegant! Love this. Seems like you could make it a day ahead, too... making the day of so much easier! Thanks for sharing. :)

Sarah said...

I picked up some salt cod a few days ago. Love your story and writing. Always so descriptive. Have a great Christmas.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Oh so interesting! I've always wondered too why there is so much cod in Portuguese food - must be for related reasons?

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I devoured this post as it is really relevant to what we are making for Christmas dinner this year! :D

Barbara said...

There's nothing quite like the seafood in Venice. Wouldn't it be fun to be there to celebrate the Feast of the 7 Fishes? Interesting about cod. Your salt cod is perfect over the polenta.
We were a Catholic family and ate fish every Friday of my childhood. My mother was a stickler. :) I think two things I remember best: perch roe (OMG) and smelt. We lived on a river connecting the Great Lakes, so fish and fishing were part of my young life.
Amusing that I now live in Florida where seafood is still such a big part of my life. But when I visit Michigan, I gorge on perch and smelt. Unfortunately, nobody serves perch roe. It must have been available in our little town back then. No doubt not cost effective.
Have a wonderful Christmas, Deana. Hope all is well with your other half. Such a fright you went through.

Laura!SilkRoadGourmet said...

Hi Deana:

Your recipe is wonderful and, as usual, so steeped in history! Its lovely! Will try - probably after the holidays. I also love the plate! Beautiful!


SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

Such an interesting story explaining how cod got to Italy! Of course, all of your stories are interesting along with the unique and delicious recipes you pair with them!

Marjie said...

The featured recipe in my newspaper today was a "feast of the 7 fishes" recipe. Very seasonal! As always, your background is outstanding.

Merry Christmas, Deana, Petunia and family, and best wishes to Dr. Lostpast for continued recovery.

Frank said...

I'm a cod maven from way back. To me, it's not Christmas Eve without baccalà. Sadly, it's a rarity on our Xmas table these days, as the young generation finds it 'gross'...