A curious culinary cod connection
Dried cod provides a tasty link between the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean
M. Michael Brady
On June 9, 1534, French navigator Jacques Cartier sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in what now is Quebec and claimed it for France. There he saw as many as a thousand Basque fishing boats, drawn there by the rich cod fishing grounds of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. From the fishermen he learned that their catches were preserved by drying and salting for transport back to Spain.
That brought salt cod into one of the triangular trade routes between the New World and the Old, shaped by the winds and currents in the age of sail. With time, more cod available translated to more cod consumed. Around the Atlantic, salt cod entered the fish trades and cuisines of northern European and the Mediterranean countries, in which the cuisine of it became known as Bacalao in Spanish or Bacalhau in Portuguese.
The Basque practice of drying and salting cod came to Norway around 1640. The produce became known as klippfisk, literally “cliff fish,” from the Basque technique of drying outdoors by wind and sun, often on cliffs. It entered Norwegian coastal culture as an exotic addition to ordinary tørrfisk (“dried fish”) that Norway had produced and exported since the Viking Age. Commercial klippfisk production began in the 18th century, and by the 19th century had evolved to an export industry, centered around the coastal cities of Kristiansund and Ålesund in Møre og Romsdal County.
Aside from the income it brought, the export of klippfisk exposed northern Norway to Mediterranean culture. In 1824, klippfisk was first shipped directly from Ålesund to Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque country of northern Spain. From 1835 on, Spanish importers sent schooners to Ålesund to pick up cargoes of klippfisk. Often in spring there were 20 to 30 Spanish schooners in the harbor, waiting for the klippfisk to finish drying. This Spansketida (“Spanish Period”) lasted until the 1870s. It both boosted the local economy and affected the cultures of the cities in lasting ways. Today, Ålesund is probably the world’s leading producer of klippfisk, and Bilbao the world center of its culinary use in Bacalao cuisine.
The cod connection may be most evident in Ålesund, in which commerce centers on cod-connected companies. The archetype may well be Jacob Bjørge on the island of Ellingsøy just outside the city, a family-owned business now celebrating its 80th anniversary as a dried salted fish producer and exporter. Moreover, Ålesund now has three Spanish restaurants, considerable for a Norwegian city of its size (population 49,000).
In Bilbao, the cuisine of cod is evident in restaurant menus and in the offerings of specialist food shops, such as those of the giant Mercado de la Ribera market that resembles a ship alongside the Nervión river running through the city. In Bilbao’s old town, there’s a shop specializing in salt cod, the venerable Gregorio Martin shop in the San Francisco district that proclaims its specialization in Bacalao with an outdoor triangular hanging sign in the shape of a split of klippfisk.
In Norway, klippfisk and Bacalao are significant in business and in culture. According to the Norwegian Seafood Council, in 2016 Norway exported 80,754 tons of klippfisk for a total of NOK 3.7 billion ($440 million). Bacalao is a word in Norwegian dictionaries, and in Kristiansund there’s the Norsk klippfiskmuseum (Norwegian Klippfisk Museum) in the 18th-century building of the Milnbrygga (Miln Quay).
This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.