28 December 2011

A Christmas Fish Story

A few days before Christmas my wife Gina and her sister Cheli (Araceli) went shopping for the ingredients to make the traditional Christmas Eve meal. They bought a smoked turkey (pavo ahumado), beef loin (lomo de res) and the ingredients for things like spaghetti with cream sauce and a dish called "romeritos" which consists of dried shrimp, sprigs of a wild plant known as "Romerito" (Seepweed in English), and potatoes all served in mole sauce. Cheli insisted that they also buy some salt codfish which they call "bacalao" because Nochebuena wouldn't be Nochebuena without bacalao.

The only problem with bacalao is that it takes a long time to prepare because you have to remove the salt that was used to preserve it. If you have ever been to a Christmas Eve supper where the guests took a bite of bacalao and then reached for something to drink you know that the bacalao was still salty. This dish goes back five hundred years or more to a time when the Basque fishermen had already discovered the cod-rich Grand Banks off of Newfoundland even before Columbus supposedly "discovered" America. Thus the dried and salted Atlantic Cod became a staple of  Portuguese and Spanish cuisine and an important trade item. The  Portuguese called the salted cod fish "bacalhau" and we know it in Mexico as "bacalao" which is also what it is called in Spain. When the French explorer Jacques Cartier "discovered" the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in 1534 while searching for the Northwest Passage to the Orient, he noted the presence of a thousand Basque boats fishing for cod. The Basques congregated at a place called Port aux Basques at the extreme southwestern tip Newfoundland. To this day both the Trans-Canada Highway and the Trans-Canada Trail have their start and end points in Port aux Basques.

As things turned out the task of removing the salt from the bacalao fell to me. To do it right you need to keep the bacalao in water in a cool place and change the water every three or four hours for a couple of days as the salt migrates to the surface. It is a bit like caring for a baby. One night I got thirsty just thinking about salt cod and I got out of bed to go to the kitchen for a drink of water. Gina woke up and asked me where I was going and I said, "I'm going to change the bacalao. I heard it crying". By the time Christmas Eve rolled around the bacalao was salt free but there was another problem. We were running out of time. Gina called Cheli and told her that if she wanted to eat bacalao she would have to cook it. Cheli was frantic because she was running out of time also but her husband Luis volunteered to cook the poor bacalao and so he sent their daughter Luis over to fetch it. All's well that ends well however, and the bacalao turned out to be delicious.

When people commented on how good the bacalao tasted both Luis and I claimed credit but Gina said "Este bacalao es como una misa de tres padres" or "This bacalao is like a mass with three priests" meaning that many people had a hand in the success of the bacalao. In the Catholic Church, especially in the old days, a solemn high mass required three priests and a bunch of altar boys and a choir and so this must have been a solemn high cod fish and THAT is my picturesque and colloquial phrase of the day.


Don Cuevas said...

Happy New Year, Bob and Gina.

Rachel Laudan www.rachellaudan.com recently had a scholarly blog on bacalao also.

Don Cuevas

Spirit of poetry said...

What a great story. As a Mexican in Los Angeles I truly miss the Bacalao aND roneritos, but I have been hard press to find it. Since I'm the only Mexican in my family, it isn't feasible for me to cook them as only I Will eat them. But it would be great to find a source to but specially the romeritos.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.