Traveling throughout Northern Italy during the winter months, if you find trattoria-menues featuring dishes called either stoccafisso or baccala’, what should you expect? Simply explained: Stoccafisso is the distortion of the term Stockfisch used by the ancient Hanseatic Alliance Germans who exported and distributed dried cod usually from Bergen throughout Central Europe, including Northern Italy.
Baccala’ is the same fish, butterflied and salted, named according to an Italian distortion of the Spanish, Portuguese, Basque and may be Latin terms: bacalao, bacalhau, bakailao or baculum [transl. Lat. cane or stick]. Thus, expect the same fish but treated based on two different ways to preserve it, for export. Stoccafisso, the dry fish, will be soaked in water and ash and deboned before you find it in your specialty – usually with a side of polenta [corn mush]. Baccala’, the salted and butterflied fish, will be soaked and rinsed in water before using it in dishes. However, be aware also that some regions, like the Veneto region, where every year a cod fish festival is held, call baccala’ the dried cod.
Curiously enough the North Italian love for the dry cod fish dates back to the XIV and XV centuries with h three Venetians: the Zenos [father and son] and Pietro Querini who in 1431 ended ship wrecked in Rost, a small island in Norway, where open air cod drying was the usual way to treat the fish which was easy to fish and good protein food for long trips and winter seasons.
Big business besides love of the dried cod were especially boosted after 1545 during and after the years of the Great Council of Trient [Trento] when dietary mandates for good Catholics recommended a leaner cuisine for fasting days and Fridays.
Dried cod came to Trento and Northern Italian regions along large Central European rivers on barges, on rafts, and on carts pulled by oxen and mules. Dried and light, it was easy to transport and was very affordable for hospitals, convents, poor houses and less fortunate cooks. Soaked in ash water and deboned it fed many who otherwise could have not afforded good protein. However, corn polenta served with stoccafisso or baccala’ came later after the discovery of America around the XVII century.
In the region of Veneto there are many recipes on how to prepare the Baccala’ alla Vicentina, however, the classic comes from an association called LA VENERABILE CONFRATERNITA’ DEL BACALA’ ALLA VICENTINA which primary goal since 1987 has been preserving the tradition of making and eating “baccala” the Vicenza way.
HOW TO PREPARE BACALA’ ALLA VICENTINA ACCORDING TO THE VENERABILE CONFRATERNITA DEL BACALA’ ALLA VICENTINA
1 kg [about 2 lbs] dried cod, in this case called locally “bacala'”
250-300 gr chopped or sliced onions
1/2 liter olive oil
3 in oil preserved salted anchovies, chopped
1/2 liter milk
Enough flour to dust the pieces of soaked and drained cod
50 gr grated Parmesan cheese
Enough fresh rinsed stemless parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak in cold water for 2-3 days the dried and “hammer-beaten”* cod. Change the water every 4 hours. Horizontally along the belly cut open the fish. Remove as many bones as possible and cut it into pieces. Preheat the oven to 320 F [160 C]. Heat 1/2 cup of oil and fry the onion; add the chopped anchovies and stir everything together. Turn off the heat and add the chopped parsley. Dust with flour the pieces of cod and place them, one near the other, on the oiled bottom of a heat resistant casserole. Sprinkle the cod pieces with the onion parsley mixture and the grated cheese. Pour over the milk and season with salt and pepper to taste. Finally, pour the remaining oil over the layer of cod pieces. Bake in the preheated oven for about 3-4 hours. Check the casserole periodically to prevent that the fish dries out.
Experience will help to determine when the bacala’ alla Vicentina will be ready. Experienced local home cooks usually recommend not to stir the pieces of fish but periodically rotate or giggle slightly the casserole to check that the cod pieces have enough liquid to simmer in.
* Hammer-beaten dried cod: In the old days the dried cod was beaten “to a pulp” to facilitate the breaking down of the rigid fish for the soaking phase – today modern dried cod businesses have large electrical punching presses or rollers.
MR. GUIDO STENICO AND HIS NORWEGIAN BACCALA’, ALSO CALLED STOCCAFISSO
Since 1925 Mr. Stenico’s “baccala’s” business has been selling “stoccafisso” or “baccala'” in Trento. First the dried Norwegian cod was sold by his father and later, when the old man retired, by him together with his brother. Also Mr. Stenico is retired now, however, not retired entirely if someone asks him to prepare, serve and eat his favorite cod specialties.
Among his favorite North Italian Norwegian dried cod dishes is his STOCCAFISSO MANTECATO which he prepares personally even if Mrs. Stenico is willing to help.
MR. GUIDO STENICO’S STOCCAFISSO MANTECATO RECIPE
Approx. 200 gr of dried Norwegian cod, hammer-beaten, sawed, soaked in water for 2-3 days or about 400-500 gr of water soaked dried cod [no salted cod please!], deboned, skinned*,
Enough milk to cover the white cod pulp before processing it in a food processor or blender
1 cup of vegetable oil [preferably sun flower oil]**
1 clove of garlic, peeled
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil the soaked, rinsed, deboned, skinned cod pieces in milk for about 15-20 minutes. Drain the cod [keep the milk] and remove the last visible fish bones. In a food processor, blend the white cod fish pulp while adding the milk, the oil, the clove of garlic and the salt and pepper to taste. Serve with crackers or toasted white bread.
ATTENTION: * After soaking, rinsing, deboning and skinning the cod you should process only the very white pulp; ** Mr. Stenico uses sun flower oil because he says that sun flower oil has a less strong flavor than olive oil and because he prefers the olive oil not to overpower the cod fish flavor.