Venetian baccalà: a history and a recipe
Food is amazing, not only is it good and comforting, it also proves how we are all united.
With regard to Venetian food, many of the most known traditional recipes derive from the contamination with other cultures and the different trades, so it is that we owe our marinated sardines to the Jews, the renown castradina (mutton stew served every 21st of November, feast of La Madonna della Salute) to the Istrians and the baccalà to the Norwegians.
Today I want to focus on the latter, starting with a couple of considerations. Normally with the word baccalà people refer to cod or dried salted cod, while only in Venice and the Veneto we refer to stockfish. Differently from baccalà, stockfish is made only with Norwegian cod of the gadus morhua species and, like the salted cod, when caught it bleeds on the fishing boat and is washed in flowing water. It’s from this moment that the processing of the two fish changes, in fact stockfish is dried in open air and it is the particular relation between sun and wind that is important, the period goes from February to June and the distance between the fish is constantly controlled in order to let the air circulate and avoid possible moulds, while salted cod is produced throughout the year and is generally left under salt for about three weeks.
The stockfish that arrives here comes directly from the Lofoten islands. The story goes that in 1431 Pietro Querini and his crew were sailing North and after a journey that had seemed unfortunate from the beginning there was a shipwreck and the survivors found themselves in the Lofoten islands. They were rescued and taken care of, so they spent the colder months there and when the season allowed them to take sea again, they slowly returned to Venice and brought lots of dried stockfish, given to them because it was a durable food that would have lasted for the whole journey. The enthusiasm with which it was welcomed in Venice was due also to the fact that in that period in the different convents and monasteries in the region, people were eating too much meat and dried stockfish represented a perfect solution to reintroduce the habit of the venerdì di magro (light Friday).
Dried cod must be left soaking for at least 24/36 hours and the water should be changed every 8 hours. Until a couple of years ago there was a fish stall in Rialto that would do it for you, but now the minimum weight required is 2 kilos so we make it only in very special occasions. The three typical regional recipes with stockfish are: baccalà mantecato, baccalà alla vicentina and baccalà in umido.
Baccalà mantecato is stockfish slowly creamed with extra virgin olive oil, something you will see in every osteria in Venice, typically served with polenta. Everyone now uses grilled yellow polenta, but actually in Venice, Treviso and Padua it was originally white, made with ground white corn, more expensive and rare, while the yellow one was used in the country. From the nutritional point of view there aren’t many differences between the two types, but the white one is definitely more delicate and with a lighter perfume, thus perfect to accompany a very flavoursome dish. Anyway, baccalà mantecato is quite delicate and it is prepared only with olive oil, salt and pepper (some people use milk, but it is not foreseen in the original recipe). We also have the baccalà conso, same preparation but with the addition of garlic and parsley.
The other world famous recipe is baccalà alla vicentina, so important for Vicenza that in 1987 the town of Sandrigo founded the Confraternita del Baccalà alla Vicentina. This is my favourite recipe, rigorously made without tomato. The stockfish is floured and baked in a deep baking pan with onions, sardines, milk, olive oil, a little bit of parmesan and parsley at low heat for about four and a half hours and served warm. It is the most exquisite thing on earth, not exactly dietetic but, after all, we only live once. My husband makes his father’s version –baccalà alla Gastone- and adds black olives and capers and uses a lower baking pan and grills it for the last half hour, so it has less liquid and a nice crunchy crust on the top. Delicious (find the recipe below).
Baccalà in umido, instead, is prepared with tomato sauce, onions, olive oil, white wine, salt, pepper and garlic. This is a more common recipe, prepared in many cities if not countries, still delicious and worth making, but I think that tomato covers the taste of the fish and, considering that Norwegian stockfish is an excellent ingredient, personally I prefer not to use it. In many restaurants and osterie in Venice you can ask for a tris di baccalà, a plate with the three varieties, so you get a taste of each.
My favourite spots in Venice for baccalà mantecato are the small corner cheese shop La Baita (where I buy it to take home, but you can ask for a sandwich) and Osteria all’Arco in Rialto, the bakery shop Baldin at the foot of the Guglie bridge in Cannaregio, which makes it only on Friday and Gislon in Sottoportico della Bissa, close to campo San Bortolo, while my mother told me that when she used to work for Telecom every Thursday she would go with her colleagues to Osteria agli Assassini, where on that day they serve the poker of baccalà, with 5 varieties. Anyway, the best plating goes to Osteria alla Frasca, where the young Sicilian chef has the ability to add creativity to any dish.
I don’t know about you, but I already feel hungry!
Find my revisited "baccalà alla vicentina" recipe below or go back to the BLOG for more on Venetian food.
RECIPE: BACCALA’ ALLA GASTONE
INGREDIENTS (Serves 4)
½ kilo soaked stockfish
1 white onion
4 Cantabrian anchovies
8 black olives
500/600 ml milk (it has to cover the fish)
200 ml olive oil
00 white flour
Pre-heat oven at 180°
Rinse the stockfish without removing the skin under fresh water and cut in thick pieces. Dry gently with a paper towel.
Finely chop the white onion, pitch the olives, remove salt from capers, grate some parmesan and prepare the anchovies.
Heat a pan, pour some oil and cook the onion until it becomes lightly golden.
Flour the stockfish, grease a pan, add the fish, then the sautéed onion, olives, capers and anchovies, pour the milk first (it has to cover the fish), then the olive oil (do not stir). Top with grated parmesan, pepper and breadcrumbs.
Bake for about 2 and grill for the last 20 minutes.