Stockfish, a carruggi experience

Stockfish, the bounty from the Lofoten islands
When in January 1432 Venetian merchant Pietro Querini and the few survivors of a shipwreck reached the remote shores of the Lofoten islands, he could not imagine that the fish hung whole (decapitated and gutted) for months on racks under the lyophilizing effect of an ideal climate would - 500 years later – play the lead role in a biography, namely M. Kurlansky’s “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World”.
The word “stockfish” (gadus morhua white cod) probably derives from stokkfisk/stocvisch/stockfish, i.e. stickfish, an export from Norway even before the age of the Viking, for whom it represented both a staple food and a good to be bartered). In his report to the Senate of the Venetian Republic, Querini dutifully described the processing of stockfish from salt-free air-drying to tenderization (beating required), with an eye on its value as a commodity. Ugo Benci (or Benzi), a 15th century physician from Siena, also expressed his appreciation for this worthy, tasty fare.
After the discovery of the New World, traffic in the Northern Seas increased: in a few years, fishermen sailed by the hundred from Marseille towards the banks of Newfoundland, while the Genoese, seafarers and wholesalers rather than fishermen, promptly fell in love with stockfish and… dumped smoked sturgeon. In 1563, the Council of Trent imposed stricter ruling of lean days and stockfish became a must on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as during the 40 days of Lent: Counter-Reformation turned stockfish into a best seller, appreciated for its organoleptic qualities and versatility. Bartolomeo Scappi, the 16th century papal head chef, wrote about the appearance and season of dried cod, giving hints for buying and cooking.

In Genoa the port gradually crowded with “cadrai” and “spezzine” - i.e. a (micro) floating version of trattorie set on boats and barges- , rowdily siding vessels and galleons to sell piping-hot minestrone – a healthy triumph of fresh vegetables, basil pesto and extra garlic – and stockfish (the word cadrai meaningfully hints to caterer – 40 of them were still operating in 1911). This stockfish craze was echoed in the popular children’s counting rhyme “Bim bum bà, stocchefisce e baccalà”.

The famous “Ragno” stockfish variety derives from the distorted name of Norwegian exporter Ragnar, the provider of the best selections (usually supplied in baffe – a baffa is a half fish cut along the bone). Norwegian Vrakeren (sorters) inspect shape and quality of the fish through sensory evaluation and categorize it. Prime grade includes Ragno, Westre magro and Demi Magro, Grand Premier, Lub, Bremer, Hollender, Westre Courant, Westre Ancona, Westre Piccolo – classification varies according to leanness, plumpness, brightness… Packed in 50-kilo bundles (jute sacking, ear-shaped side patches helped moving them around), stockfish was ready to be shipped to Genoa.

Nowadays you can buy your stockfish already beaten, bent and rehydrated under cold, running water for days (though hyper purists buy it dry and soften it at home). According to local savvy, though born in water, it is to die in oil in recipes such as “stoccafisso accomodato”, featuring the cheap comfort of potatoes. Careful cleaning and preparation required – do not overcook the fish and do not discard its skin, rich in collagen that releases creaminess. Side servings of polenta are a must in the entroterra areas bordering Piedmont. Wine matching asks for a light red (tomato rules), go local and opt for Ciliegiolo from DOC Golfo del Tigullio. Stockfish budelline (tripes) are a “nowhere to be found” Ligurian treat.

Last but not least, a useful tip for the fans of Ratto’s Cuciniera (1863), which featured both “stoccofisso” and baccalà (a name of Flemish origin): though the fish is the same - gadus morhua- , yet baccalà is preserved in salt, a Basque technique. In Portugal it is known as o fiel amigo, “the faithful friend” of Lusitania, whose inhabitants – in chef Auguste Escoffier’s words (1903) are to be thanked for having been the first to introduce precious baccalà to our palates.

My English abstract of the "Odori di carruggi e un brandacujùn per l'estate" article by Umberto Curti as published on "Liguria Food". Click here for full version (in Italian).

Luisa Puppo


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