The origins of Baccalà mantecato
One of the most ancient and typical dishes in Venice is baccalà mantecato (creamed cod) often served on a slice of grilled white polenta, both in Venetian houses and in Venetian taverns (osterie).
This post talks about the origins of this delicious dish (the source is an article by Sebastiano Giorgi in Guida alle Osterie Veneziane)
There is a famous saying in Venice which goes like this: Done, cani e baccalà no xe bon se no xe pestà (women, dogs and cod are not good unless they are beaten) which comes from the fact that until after WWII, the cod was still being beaten on the paving stones of Zattere by the laborers of the burci (the burcio is a large vessel or cargo in use in the Venetian lagoon) and the trabaccoli (the lugger, or trabàcco, is a fishing vessel and / or cargo typical of the Middle and Upper Adriatic).
The history of baccalà dates back to April 25, 1431 when a Venetian ship, full of spices, departed from the island of Crete under the command of the sea captain Piero Querini headed for the North Sea. When it reached the English Channel, the route was disrupted by a violent storm which, after breaking the mast, dragged the ship on for days towards the north. Looking for safety aboard the lifeboats, the surviving sailors landed on the uninhabited rock of Sandoy, in the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. After a few days the local fishermen spotted them and brought them to safety on the island of Roest, which later the Venetian sailors called an earthly paradise (so much so that some of the sailors decided to stay there for ever) because of the great freedom and simplicity of the customs and habits of the inhabitants.
Several months after the shipwreck, coming back from the hospitable Lofoten Islands, Captain Querini brought back 60 dried stockfish, telling the Venetians how the Norwegians dried the fish in the wind until it became as hard as a wooden stick and then they beat it and spiced it turning it into a soft and tasty mix.
The language aspect is also interesting: the cod was called by the people of Northern European stock (stick) fish, while the word used by the Venetians was baccalà for its similarity with the Portuguese word bacalhau and bacalao in Spanish terms, derived from the Latin, meaning baculus, stick. The Spanish and the Portuguese, however, were referring to that type of cod that despite starting from the Arctic Sea, goes towards Labrador and Newfoundland, where it was caught and preserved in salt. The name cod was instead used in Venice to define the Norwegian stockfish, an oddity like the use of the word “creamed” of Spanish origin. Thus baccalà mantecato is a codfish cream.
Here is the traditional recipe for Baccalà mantecato thanks to Cook In Venice
About 300 gr of dried cod,
garlic, bay-leaf, salt,pepper,olive oil, parsley
Cut the cod into pieces and place them into a pan full of water. Leave it in running cold water for 2 days.
After 2 days substitute the water with some lightly salted water, a bay leaf and cook for 30 minutes. Make sure to remove the foam which will form when the water starts boiling.
After 30 minutes, remove the pieces of cod from the pan and place in a container with high sides. Remove the skin and the bones form the cod and add 2 gloves of garlic. Take a wooden spoon and start to mix with energy slowly adding the olive oil (just like if you were making mayonnaise). The quantity of the oil will depend on the capacity of absorbing of the cod. Carry on mixing till the cod will turn into a nice mousse like sort of cream. Taste and add salt if required. Add some pepper and use on fresh cut bread slices or grilled slices of polenta. Garnish with some parsley.
The difficulty of this dish is the mixing that can take up to an hour. To speed the process you can use an immersion mixer.
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