In 1432 a Venetian captain, Pietro Querini, returned home after surviving a terrible shipwreck off the Northern coast of Norway, and described for the first time the stocfisi (dried salt cod) he had tasted in the remote islands where he’d been nursed back to health. His description probably went largely unnoticed at the time, given the abundance of fresh fish in the waters of the lagoon.
Baccalà (stockfish) is a particularly tough kind of dried salt cod, sold by the slab. It became such a staple in Europe in the Middle Ages that it supported the expansion of trade routes with the New World; soon it was popping up in the traditional dishes of areas as diverse as Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, West Africa, the Caribbean and Brazil.
However, it wasn’t until the 1500s that Venice becomes its main point of distribution. The Council of Trento (1555), prohibiting meat to Christians on Fridays, probably gave it a little push; so did the Spanish Portuguese Jews and conversos who settled in Venice after the expulsion, and were already accustomed to eating it. As a matter of fact, for a while it was considered (like pickled fish) a “Jewish food,” which could draw the unwelcome attention of the Inquisition.
Back then, most people wouldn’t have thought of baccalà as fancy. Leave it to the Venetians to elevate such a humble ingredient to ranscendental heights: with the mantecatura (the slow pouring of oil while stirring the fish, just like in their famous risottos) it becomes a surprisingly delicate and elegant creamy mousse. While there are dozens of other local recipes for stockfish, Baccala’ mantecato has become one of the signature dishes of Venetian cuisine.
Baccala’ Mantecato (Salt Cod Mousse)
Prep Time: 1 hour
1 pound salt cod
About 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup whole milk, if liked (you can also use water)
1 clove garlic
1-2 tbsps finely minced parsley
Black pepper, optional
If salt cod is not available in your area, you can make a similar delicious mousse using canned mackerel (packed in water): in this case, no need to soak and boil, just drain the mackerel and proceed to mantecatura with the oil.
1.) Soak for 24 hours in a large bowl of cold water, changing the water every few hours (at least 3 times), to remove the excess salt.
2.) Remove any skin and bones, break the cod into pieces and transfer it into a saucepan with enough water (some people use milk) to cover it by at least ½ inch.
3.) Simmer for about 30 minutes, or until it softens and starts flaking without falling apart.
4.) Reserve some of the cooking water. Drain the cod in a colander and allow to cool. Remove any leftover skin and bones.
5.) Warm the bowl of your food processor by rinsing it in hot water. Rub the inside of the bowl with a garlic clove (some people add the whole clove, others don’t — in any case do not add more than one clove).
6.) Using the steel knife blade attachment, pulse the cod in the food processor enough to break it up; add the olive oil gradually in a thin stream while processing the mixture into a puree. If the mixture is too thick, add some of the poaching water.
7.) Stop adding oil when the fish stops absorbing it. Add a tablespoon or two of finely minced fresh parsley.
8.) Serve warm or at room temperature on a bed of polenta or with toasted bread.