A Venetian fishing expedition to the Arctic – just for Bacala

The discovery of bacala. The trading interests of the Venetians seem to have few limits as in 1432 we find a Venetian nobleman trader and his ship somewhere north of the Arctic Circle (looking for a Greenland sale perchance but finding bacala?).

By chance he became shipwrecked in the Lofoten Islands and was rescued by the people of Røst Island. One may wonder how he ever got back to Venice to tell his tale as the phone service was virtually non-existent, but after a well spent year in the arms and kitchens of the locals, he did return to Venice. Apart from sampling the charms of the locals, his greatest experience was to learn about their eating habits, which seemed to consist of a staple diet of fish, apparently caught the previous year, dried and ‘mummified’. To resurrect the ’fish’ they beat it mercilessly and then soaked it in water for days. We call that fish Stockfish and the Venetians call it Bacala. Sustainable, but definitely not elegant.

However, having a true sense of the entrepreneur he decided that this trading opportunity was better than none and he loaded up his return ship with the lightweight air-dried bacala. Like Egyptian mummies, the bacala could last in this state almost indefinitely, but resurrection required great patience and skill.

The wise Venetians rejected his promotion of this fish as fit for royalty, despite his marketing skills and presentation, as they favoured the fresh fish of the lagoon. But 50 km is a long way in the hot Venetian summer, and a fish, no matter how fresh in the lagoon could only be edible in the centre of Veneto if it travelled alive, a not very credible and also expensive option. So for the well bred burgers of central Veneto as far as Vicenza, any fish, even bacala, was better than no fish at all, and the nobles adopted this ‘meanest’ of fish as their own. Many similar marketing ventures have proven successful where an ordinary article from one culture is promoted as an elite piece in a relatively distant society.

The ordinary stockfish, tasting very little like its fresh cod brothers, developed the folk name of bacalà for the air-dried version and baccalà for the salted version, understandable only to those well versed in the local dialect.

For the casual visitor to Veneto, one could expect to find ‘obscure’ cuisine in large towns such as Vicenza. But, not so, when hidden away near the route to Bassano del Grappa in a village called Sandrigo that is the Bacalà capital of the world. It is now linked with Røst Island, hosts many Norwegian visitors, and holds an annual folk festival of Bacalà at the end of September.

This is the real test for the afficionado. Bacalà aperitivo, appetiser, soup, pasta, main course with polenta, and desert, that reminds one of the carp restaurant on the major lake of Montenegro. I do believe that the Norwegians may have the better result from this trade, but who can account for taste?

(This article is reproduced under licence from Ennergitismo Limited)