Baccala is not just a dish; it's a labour of love - but it's in danger of dying out.
Dried, salted cod may not sound very appealing, but generations of Italian kids have grown up on it and associate it with special occasions.
Whether served in a tomato-based soup, mantecato, a salt-cod paste, spread on crostini, or deep fried, it's a sign that Nonna, Mamma or Zia have committed days to make it for you.
Back in the day, to preserve fresh cod, the fish was dried and salted so it could keep without refrigeration. But on the flip side, it requires effort to make it palatable.
To soften the fish and remove the excess salt, it needs to be soaked in water for two to five days, depending on the variety you use. The water needs to be changed every 12 hours. The other method is to keep the fish in a sink with the tap slowly running.
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.
Because it takes so much effort, it's reserved for special occasions such as Easter and Christmas. Because the Catholic Church decreed that meat was off the menu on holy days, baccala became an affordable alternative to fresh fish.
Riccardo Bernabei, 54, from Molo Wine Bar at Woolloomooloo in Sydney, grew up eating baccala soup at Easter.
Last year, he put it on the menu at Molo over Easter and was inundated with Italians who wanted a taste of nostalgia.
This year, it will be on the menu on Saturday and Easter Sunday.
"It’s the typical Sicilian soup, big chunks of baccala, potato and green olives served with crusty bread," he says.
"It's the taste of my childhood, we would always eat it at Easter, and I always thought, ‘why can't we eat it for the rest of the year?’ But mum only made it at Easter."
This is a special meal for Italians, as it is only eaten twice a year; once at Christmas and once during Easter. It is a very festive dish and everyone in my family looks forward to it. Poh & Co. 2
Bernabei posted the dish on social media and was floored by the response.
"A lot of people who came in said, 'Mum's not making it this year, so we came down to eat yours'," he says. "There were also a few Aussies too, I was a bit surprised, but baccala is one of those things, like anchovies, that you either love or hate."
Luciana Sampogna, 49, was born in Venice and came to Australia 21 years ago. As a second wave immigrant, she said baccala soup at Easter is a uniquely Italo-Australian tradition.
In Italy, it's eaten at Christmas.
"The first generation of immigrants tried to insert baccala in their life because it was a special dish that they missed very much. Easter is very important to Italians so they made an effort for it. It’s also the time it starts to get wintery in the southern hemisphere," she says.
"Baccala soup is a winter dish and eating it at Easter is like Christmas in July."
Ms Sampogna runs the Cucina Italiana Cooking School, but not even she makes baccala soup these days, although she does teach a baccala mantecato recipe in her Venetian cooking classes.
"Baccala mantecato as an antipasto dish is the one that we would have in the summer months in Italy during Easter," she says.
Maria Martino, 84, emigrated to Australia in 1958 from the Campania region of Southern Italy and says baccala was eaten at religious holidays, Easter and Christmas, rather than as an everyday food. While there are a myriad of ways of preparing baccala, the local speciality from her region was dredging the soaked fish in flour and then frying it.
It may be a dish she still enjoys, but she doesn't bother with it anymore. Her friends have also stopped cooking it and none of their kids has taken up the baton.
"It's too much work," she says.
"Nobody wants to spend days preparing it, but everyone likes eating it."
If you want to give it a go, Bernabei has a few tips when shopping for baccala.
Although you can find pre-soaked pieces in packets, it's worth visiting a traditional Italian deli to buy a whole side of fish.
"It should be as long and hard as a cricket bat; you could almost hammer a nail into it. Dad would get a hacksaw out to cut it into pieces," Bernabei says.
Molo's baccala soup recipe
• 1 kg salt cod – soaked in cold water 24-72 hours – change the water several times
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 4 cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 large onion, sliced
• 2 fennel bulbs, sliced horizontally
• ⅓ cup chopped fennel fronds
• 1 cup white wine
• 4 peeled potatoes, sliced
• 1 large can peeled tomatoes, give them one quick turn in the blender for the perfect consistency
• ½ cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
• ¼ cup chopped fresh basil
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 cup green olives
• ½ tsp red pepper flakes
• 2 cups water (you can add more if you prefer more liquid)
• Salt & pepper to taste
• Chopped fresh basil to garnish
1. Heat oil, add garlic and cook for a few minutes on medium heat.
2. Add onion and fennel slices, cook about six minutes until just tender.
3. Increase heat, add wine and cook down for about three minutes.
4. Add water, potatoes, tomatoes, fresh herbs, bay leaf, fennel fronds and red pepper flakes. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 10-12 minutes. Add olives.
5. Cut the fish into pieces about two inches long, add to the pan, cover and simmer – do not boil – for about 30 minutes or until the fish is tender and potatoes are cooked.
6. Check for seasoning and serve with thick chunks of crusty Italian bread which has been grilled and brushed with olive oil.
Recipe by Vittorio Filippi and Emilio Bazzaro at Cucina Italiana in Venice.
Note: Venetians tend to use air-dried, unsalted stockfish called stocafisso, although they still call it baccala. If using the salted baccala in this recipe, do not add salt.
There are two secrets to a perfect baccala mantecato;
• The milk must be 20% of the weight of the cooked fish pulp.
• The oil must be 50% of the weight of the cooked fish pulp.
• 500g of soaked stockfish or baccala
• 125ml extra virgin olive oil
•125ml sunflower oil
•100ml full cream milk
•Extra milk for cooking the stockfish
•2 bay leaves
• A pinch of salt
• One clove of garlic, finely chopped, and a hand full of chopped parsley
1. Soak the stockfish in fresh water, changing it at least three times per day for two days.
2. Clean the cod by removing the skin and cut it into slices.
3. Place it on a low pan, cover with equal parts water and milk, and add the peppercorn and bay leaves.
4. Bring to the boil and cook for about 25-30 minutes.
5. Turn off the heat and let the cod cool for at least 30 minutes.
6. Discard the liquid, peppercorns and bay leaves.
7. Carefully separate the pulp from the thorns. It should weigh 500g precisely.
8. At this point, it is very important to weigh it to calculate the percentages of milk and oil needed to obtain a perfect creamy texture. You need to have 500g of stockfish, 300ml of oil and 100ml of milk.
9. Place the cooked cod with 100ml of milk and a pinch of salt dissolved in a little cooking water if you aren’t using the salted baccala, in an electric mixer using the paddle beater attachment and blend until combined.
10. You can add garlic and chopped parsley according to your personal taste.
11. Change the attachment to the whisk and add 300ml of oil slowly, continuing to whisk until a foam is created. Think of it as the same process you’d use to make mayonnaise.
12. The final result should be a foamy and compact cream.
Photographs by Riccardo Bernabei and Luciana Sampogna