It always feels slightly ridiculous to pay more for baccala than for most kinds of fresh fish but it should be no great surprise. After all, prior to refrigeration a lot more effort was required to make sure fish could be kept for the innumerable Catholic fasting days (which, for Fridays at least, are still recommended).
Cod was plentiful through the middle ages, but not everywhere and not throughout the whole year, so for many centuries baccala was a major source of Friday protein. Baccala can safely be eaten during Lent without fear of The Man Upstairs Who Could Visit You With Plague And Could Do Scary Stuff With Lightning, so for most of history, baccala was what you ate when you were doing penance or abstinence. It is to fresh fish what ham is to pork - a means of once tiresome preservation, no longer required but still desired for its flavour.
Pellegrino Artusi, the nineteenth century author of La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) managed his reader's expectations by telling them not to expect too much of baccala, and that seems to have been the spirit of the times. Like going to Church, it was dead boring but you did it because you had to. Artusi actually says at the end of his recipe for Baccala Fritto, "If ... you still find this to be an inferior dish, it is your fault for wanting to try it." So, having dampened your enthusiasm, why not try this wonderful dish? The fish has a dense, almost chewy texture and soft, creamy-fish flavour.
- 1kg or so of baccala. Whatever you do, remember baccala's the salty one - don't try and use stockfish which have been mummified instead of salted.
- 500-700g potatoes
- an onion
- half a bunch of parsley
- olive oil
- a few ripe tomatoes
Thinly slice the potatoes and the onion, and in a heavy casserole lubed up with olive oil, make layers of potato, fish, onion, parsley, anointing each layer with a drizzle of olive oil and a grind of pepper. Drizzle a little (a few tablespoons only) of the liquid the fish was cooked over the top and then add the sliced tomatoes. Stick into the oven for an hour or so until the potatoes are soft and have absorbed the flavours of the fish, onion and parsley. Fragrant and comforting - not a grand and pretentious dinner, but a warm and friendly dish for a cold winter weekend.