• International conflict and climate change are just part of the story. (Getty Images)
The demand for this fish actually started several wars.
Lucy Rennick

6 Nov 2018 - 9:55 AM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2018 - 10:54 AM

You may not know from looking at it, but salted cod, the North Atlantic preserved fish staple in Portuguese, Spanish and Scandinavian diets, used to cause actual battles between countries.

Known as The Cod Wars, or Þorskastríðin ("the cod strife") in Icelandic, the four confrontations between the tiny Island microstate of Iceland and the British Empire over fishing territory disputes took place between 1958 and 1976; each resulted in an Icelandic victory. Cod, after all, is a fish found mostly in the North Atlantic waters surrounding Iceland, the top of Scandinavia and Canada.  

Since those days of cod-fuelled contention, salted cod has remained a mainstay in the cuisines of Iceland, Norway, and, as a result of North Atlantic trade, that of Mediterranean countries like Spain and Portugal, too.

“If you go to a Portuguese wedding and there are no salted cod croquettes served, you’re not at a real Portuguese wedding,” says Paulo Da Silva from Casa Iberica, one of Melbourne’s premium Portuguese delis.

Salted cod, or bacalhau, was historically perceived as “poor man’s food”, Da Silva explains.

“Bacalhau was something that was readily available in the Atlantic Ocean,” he explains. “It was a product that could be cured and didn’t require refrigeration. 80 per cent of the people in Portugal didn’t have fridges –  all the way up to the 1980s – so that would be their dish.”

“If you go to a Portuguese wedding and there are no salted cod croquettes served, you’re not at a real Portuguese wedding.”

In 2018, bacalhau is considered a premium product, both in Portugal and in Melbourne where Da Silva runs his business. Casa Iberica was the first business to import bachalau from Portugal to Australia for Melbourne’s Portuguese community; now they’re supplying to restaurants as far north as Queensland. 

“It still stinks like hell, but it’s beautiful fish,” he says. “It’s expensive, too. Not everyone can afford it. But cooked properly and with all the different recipes using salted cod on offer these days, there’s bound to be a way of eating it almost anyone would enjoy.”

The increase in demand for bacalhau in countries like Australia is one piece in the puzzle of the future of this North Atlantic staple; the others, of course, are climate change and unsustainable fishing practices.

“The number of cod is in decline,” says Da Silva. “Like most fish, it’s become more popular across the world – more nationalities are taking to salted cod than before.”

Spanish-born Emile Gomez from Sydney-based food distribution company Nomad is in the business of importing the highest quality Spanish foods he can find – that includes Spanish salted cod (bacalao). The fate of cod populations, he explains, is intertwined with that of a warming planet.

“As it currently stands, there’s an open and closed fishing season for cod,” he says. “The regulations allow the fish to live a proper life, and the fishing time and volumes are strictly controlled – hence the price increase of the imported fish.”

“But that’s all changing as the oceans get warmer. The cod are migrating to areas which are not protected by fishing regulations. They’re being fished at the wrong time, and their cycles are cut short. The actual premise of the fishing is fantastic, but the areas of fishing are always changing and aren’t controlled properly.”

As the oceans get water, cod are migrating to areas which are not protected by fishing regulations,” he says. “They’re being fished at the wrong time.”

For consumers, this means less oily, high-grade cod and an increase in cheaper substitutes on the shelves.

“But that’s all changing as the oceans get warmer. The cod are migrating to areas which are not protected by fishing regulations."

“Sometimes you’ll go into a shop and you’ll see fish called bacalhau, but it’s not actually bacalhau, it’s rock ling,” Da Silva says. “They’ll salt it up and because it’s the cousin of bacalhau, it’s 70 per cent the same, but it’s not the real thing.”

Some good news: cod has been on the World Wildlife Foundation’s endangered species list, a move which limits the number of cod people legally can catch. Here’s hoping global efforts can work to further preserve this delicate, salted treasure.

Bacalhau à brás (Salt cod with fried potatoes and egg)

Get your hands on Jose Silva's salted cold, fried potatoes + egg one-pan winner  or try a recipe from our Salt Cod collection today.

This week it's all about feel good fish on Food Safari Water with Maeve O'Meara 7.30pm, Wednesdays on SBS and then you can catch-up on all episodes via SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more.

In Cod I trust
Salt cod fritters (Bunuelos de bacalao)

Bacalao is a salted and dried cod that is often sold in large fillets. It's probably the only dish Frank Camorra doesn't put any salt in (don't worry, the cod does all the work on that front). These fillets can be found in selected delis or grocers. Food Safari Water

Baccala mantecato (salt cod paste)

This creamy, salty spread is enjoyed over special holidays in Italy, such as Easter or Christmas. It's labour and time intensive, but the deep, rustic flavours you get at the end are worth it. Serve baccala mantecato with a good crusty bread, crackers, crostini or vegetables. 

Salt cod, chickpea and egg salad (salad grao de bico)

This dish is based on a rustic Portuguese salad that’s not much more than dressed chickpeas, salt cod, olives and boiled eggs – the amounts and ratios aren’t fixed. Potatoes, while not traditional, do make it a bit more substantial and if you wanted, you could sling in some watercress sprigs or rocket leaves as well. 

Salt cod crostini (crostini di Baccala mantecato)

Creamy, salty and deliciously more-ish, these snacks, or cichèti, are often served at Venetian bars, known as bàcari.

Salt cod croquettes (crocchette di baccalà)

Sold in many European delis, salt cod (baccala) needs to be soaked in cold water for 48 hours before being cooked. They are traditionally rolled in day-old breadcrumbs, but this recipe from chef Guy Grossi uses panko crumbs for an extra crispy shell.