Baccalà is a traditional Christmas Eve favorite in Italy—it’s great as an appetizer or as a main course. Check out our many baccalà recipes for inspiration.
Cod is no ordinary fish. For one thing, it has the dubious distinction of being one of the only fish that naval battles have been fought over. Fished by the Vikings in the cold North Atlantic seas almost 3000 years ago, cod has been at the center of trade wars for centuries. Another curious fact about this fish is that it goes by a lot of different names; the different names refer to the different methods of conservation: it’s “cod” (or merluzzo in Italian) when it is fresh or frozen; when it is air cured, it’s referred to as “stockfish” or stoccafisso; and finally, if it is salt cured, it’s known as baccalà. Once so abundant, it saved millions from famine, but today cod is more scarce and popular as ever—appreciated for its versatility and as a precious source of proteins, minerals, unsaturated fats and Omega 3.
The nomenclature for cod is not simple—in fact, it’s a bit of fish story in itself—just try to keep in mind that stoccafisso and baccalà are in fact the same fish: cod. Norway’s unique climatic conditions of low temperatures, dry air and a low amount of precipitation are perfect for air-drying cod in open tents. Cod preserved in this way can last for years. This natural method has been used for centuries, and Norwegian stockfish is still considered the best in the world. Baccalà—or cod preserved in salt—was introduced much later by the Basques, and became a common preservation method. But many famous Italian recipes, especially in the Veneto region, actually call for Norwegian stockfish.
The Campania region, which includes the city of Naples, boasts the highest consumption of both stockfish and dried salted cod in Italy; legend has it that there are 365 different ways to eat baccalà in Naples. (By the way, to further complicate the story, all these dishes are referred to as baccalà—even when stockfish is used.) Anyway, whether you use stoccafisso or salt-preserved baccalà, it’s important in both cases to be sure you’re buying a good quality, well-preserved product. Baccalà needs to be soaked in clean fresh water for at least 48 hours, changing the water every eight hours or so. Stoccafisso usually must first be pounded with a wooden mallet to break the fibers, and then soaked like baccalà, but for longer—a minimum of 72 hours. Once the merchants used to do all this preparatory work for you, but today it’s much more rare. In my childhood, it was a common scene in Venice—and Naples and Rome—to see huge buckets of stockfish or salted cod, with a hose stuck inside, the water overflowing all over the street.
In Veneto, baccalà is considered a real delicacy: Baccalà alla Vicentina (slowly braised with onions, anchovies and milk) and Baccalà Mantecato (an elaborate preparation with extra virgin olive oil, lemon and parsley) are always served with polenta and are beloved regional recipes. Traditionally, baccalà was eaten on Fridays—when meat was forbidden for religious reasons—and on Christmas Eve. Some other popular baccalà dishes are Baccalà alla Livornese (with tomatoes, garlic, parsley and basil), which is served in Tuscany; Baccalà Fritta (usually fried in a simple egg and flour batter, but sometimes whipped egg whites and flour are used), which is prepared in Rome; and Baccalà alla Napoletana in Naples (the baccalà is fried and then placed in a simmering tomato sauce, with olives, capers and pine nuts). Often the fish is combined with different vegetables—from tomatoes or peppers to eggplants or potatoes—as in Baccalà con le Patate (see recipe below). The flaky texture of the fish and its unusually intense flavor—which is never fishy—makes this dish an unforgettable delight.