Baccalà, or salted Cod, is especially popular in Italy. Campania in the South, is the region where it is most appreciated, but it is also vastly popular in other regions, such as Veneto, and other places, with BaccalàallaVicentina being one of the most famous dishes.

The question that comes to mind, however, is why this northern fish should be so sought after in a Mediterranean country like Italy, a peninsula where fish has always been plentiful. The answer is quite simple and lies buried in the folds of our history.

BACCALÀ – THE HISTORY

Going back to the 16th century, you may recall how Europe was disrupted by religious wars. Martin Luther, Calvin and Henry VIII – the latter for more secular reasons – were the rising stars of Protestantism. The Catholic Church of Rome was losing its power, Rome itself had been sacked, and people were fed up with its corruption and loose morals. So some kind of response was sorely needed.

The Church therefore decided to reform itself, its doctrine, as well as the mores and customs of its followers. Besides condemning Philosophers and Scientists like Giordano Bruno and Galileo, for disputing its doctrine, the so-called Counter-reformation of the Church imposed a more strict conduct and no leniency, not even for gluttons.

Periods of lent had to be observed (especially between Carnival and Easter), as well as mild forms of fasting. It became customary to eat fish on a Friday, abstaining from meat, as a form of penitence.

However fresh fish was not always readily available, especially far from the coast and in Winter months, and of course people didn’t have refrigerators at the time. SoBaccalà and Stoccafisso (dried unsalted cod) from the northern seas found their way to Italy. They were affordable, if not cheap, and met every religious requirement.

In Region Campania the fish first appeared in markets near the Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Arco in Sant’Anastasia, in the Vesuvius area. The Sanctuary was a shrine, a place of pilgrimage and exchange, where people traded ideas as well as goods. From there it spread all around Campania, reaching places like Avellino and Benevento, two major cities of the inland, close to the Apennine Mountains.

Baccalàwas immediately paired with pasta and the rich vegetable produce of an area made exceptionally fertile by volcanic soil. Water is also abundant in the region, so re-hydrating a food that was salted for conservation, was never an issue.

Having ticked all of the boxes this wonderful fish became a win-win option, and nowadays it has been rediscovered by proud housewives, cooks and chefs.There are scores of restaurants that feature Baccalàdishes, and many that specialise in serving it as their only food, yet in countless variations.

Baccalà, who is the King?

Having given you a general picture, in the next article we will tell you the story of the chef who has taken this fish, so popular over the last five centuries, to the next level. He has opened three restaurants that serve only Baccalà, he has written a book about it, and he styles himself ‘chef scellato’ – a pun almost lost in translation between ‘stellato’ (Michelin star chef) and ‘scella’ (local term for ‘wing’ in reference to the shape of the fish once salted). Can you guess who it is? If so, please leave a comment below!

Did you Know?

In Italian being called a Baccalà is no form of flattery, rather a mild insult that roughly translates into ‘fool’ or ‘gullible’, a dim-witted person who is not ready to grasp the smallopportunities that life may bestow on them. Seduction is lost on the ‘Baccalà’, even if he has the looks, the girl who gave him the eye will soon turn her attention to a more lively partner. Luckily as the English saying goes, ‘there are plenty of fish in the sea!’

Sean Altamura

Traditions evolve over time negotiating changes with the contemporary world. This is especially true for gastronomy, as chefs are open to experimentation and fusions with other cuisines. However here in Italy, where there is such a variety of regional cuisines and biodiversity, this often happens in-house, so to speak.

Festivities are always a good excuse to get together and enjoy large family feasts, and diets invariably start after Christmas. The most important meal being the Christmas Eve Dinner, with the children opening their presents immediately after, and some adults going to church for Midnight Mass.

How do you prepare for Christmas Eve Dinner and what are the traditional dishes served?

Needless to say, fish is especially popular, and Baccalà, salted Codfish, is considered a must. It can be served fried in batter, in umido – boiled or fried – dressed with tomato sauce, olives and capers, or inside insalata di rinforzo, a salad with cabbage, mayonnaise and Baccalà. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Here is an example of a traditional family menu in a Neapolitan household.

The Neapolitan Family Menu

Starters

Olives, groceries, octopus salad, anchovies

First course

Spaghetti with Clams

Second course

Mullet, Baccalà, Capitone eel

Side dishes

Insalata di rinforzo, salad

Dessert

Struffoli, Roccocò

 

A very tense house-wife would be cooking all this with little help from the husband, and dreading judgement from the mother in law. However, the couple would have a special moment together and actually enjoy doing all the shopping for it.

This would happen – and does indeed still happen – on the night of 23rd of December. Fishmongers open early in the morning and close as late as 2 a.m.! Yes you got it right! It’s crazy but it’s fun. People go shopping for fish late at night.

A late night out shopping for fish

When they get to the fishmonger’s they choose the fish expertly, have a chat and improvise an aperitif with raw shellfish varying from mussels to clams, taratufi – warty venus clams, small shrimps, oysters and white wine, which has now evolved into Prosecco. This is possible because most customers will have ordered their fish in advance, and not everyone turns up at late hours. The fish shop will have lemons ready for the shellfish, eager to offer customers a treat that has been around far longer than the recently introduced sushi-style crudités. The shops will be lit up with the big light bulbs from Lampare, the old fishing boats, decorated with fishing nets, and display some live fish in shallow bowls, or some very large ones like whole sword-fish. The most popular places in Naples are Mergellina, by the sea front towards Posillipo, the market Aret é mura, near the ancient city gates of Porta Nolana and Porta Capuana, and Pignasecca market in Montesanto.

How have traditions changed from the past?

Luciano, a fish monger from Fuorigrotta recalls “My mum used to make spaghetti with Lupini – a cheaper variety of clams – with tomato sauce, to consume less olive oil, because we didn’t have much money. Everybody used to eat Cefalo – mullet, which is a little frowned upon now – Baccalà and Capitone, whereas now we only sell 30kg of it over the Christmas period”. Leonardo, another fish monger from Rione Sanità explains “Nowadays the older family members have to have their piece of fried Baccalà and Capitone, the middle aged like Pezzogna di mare – sea bream – and the children get plaice and calamari”. So there is a slightly different menu for every age group, introduced by sfizi – fun starters like prawn cocktails and oysters, and an overall tendency to prefer fish with no bones, including lobster and squid, which are relatively easier to cook.

Taste it yourself

If you are not fortunate enough to be invited home by a traditional family, you can still taste Baccalà and other delicacies in a restaurant. Moreover, you won’t have to wait till Christmas, or engage in heavy duty cooking. These are the restaurants that have included salted and dried cod, Baccalà and Stocco, into the best recipes of Italian Cuisine, making it their choicest ingredient.

La Locanda del Baccalà

This restaurant boasts three branches, with premises in Marcianise, Salerno, and Cava Dei Tirreni. As the name suggests it specialises in dishes featuring Baccalà as the main ingredient.

Traditional Italian recipes have been reinvented, to host this tasty guest. An example? Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Baccalà instead of Pancetta or Guanciale – bacon and cheecklard respectively – as a more healthy alternative, rich in flavour. This has led to the creation of a recipe book, recently published, called ‘50 Sfumature di Baccalà’ or ’50 Shades of Baccalà’.

Each branch has its style, with a Baccalà Boutique in Marcianise, the Locanda or Tavern in Salerno, and the Street Food shop in Cava dei Tirreni.

Ristorante Bianco      

The Ristorante Bianco, or White Restaurant, specialises in Baccalà dishes, but also offers excellent fish food from the whole range of fresh catches from the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Rather than working on traditional dishes featuring Baccalà, they have worked on innovative pairings, such as Baccalà Tartare with Basil Pesto alla Genovese, or even Risotto with Baccalà and Pumpkin. The Restaurant can be found just outside Arzano, a town in the province of Naples.

Le Due Palme

Obviously named after palm trees the Restaurant also mirrors the surname of the owners, Palma. It specialises in sea-food in general. It is located in Agnano, not far from Pozzuoli, where there is an excellent fish market, regularly supplied by local fishing boats with some spectacular live catches. A signature dish is fried Baccalà in almond crust resting on a chickpea puree with a side dish of Peperone Crusco and Frarielli – local varieties of peppers and broccoli, respectively.

The Restaurant is also an authentic Neapolitan Pizzeria, which means it is ideal for kids who may not always appreciate fish. It is on the Astroni hill, near the WWF Astroni Nature Reserve, so if you get the timing right you could visit the reserve and have lunch at the restaurant.

Prices

All the restaurants mentioned can be considered mid-range in price, with variations according to your appetite and how lavish you get with the wine.

Side Story

Fishmongers used to hail their customers with local dialect expressions that are now almost lost. ‘E palill aret é carrett’ – ‘the wooden pegs securing the load on carts’ was a reference to how large and tasty the anchovies were.

Not wholeheartedly honest, fishmongers used to serve fish wrapped in thick paper. However the paper would have been artfully wet, thus weighing almost as much as the fish it contained. The boy cleaning the fish would have an empty crate under the counter, called croce, the cross, and slip in a piece of fish from every customer, so he could have fish for his family Christmas dinner, a form of ‘charity’ that the clients were not aware of.

Nowadays customers will show up when the shop is crowded and ask for their fish to be not only gutted, but also filleted and portioned. This will be included in the price, with no additional fee, but the staff will appreciate a generous Christmas tip.

Side story courtesy of Leonardo, a Neapolitan Fishmonger

 

Sean Grant Altamura

 

 

 

Vesuvius Cloud: a Taste of Christmas

Panettone is a traditional Italian Christmas cake. Helga Liberto, the cake maker of Chef dei Grani from Battipaglia, has just presented one her masterful takes on this timeless classic. One of many interpretations, because the Panettone has been declined in countless variations, and the challenge is of course to try to innovate the recipe while being mindful of tradition. A daunting task if you ask me, because a successful recipe should be simple and captivating, adding a personal touch to a cake that has already been perfected over years of cooking history. And don’t forget that Italians are extremely touchy and distrustful of anyone who tries to mess with tradition.

Helga Liberto

However there is some space for innovation. One of the key ingredients of Panettone is candid fruit, something that people here have mixed feelings about. The other thing that has to be perfectly right is texture. The cake should be soft and light, resembling a very tall muffin, but more spongy. Forever a devoted Chef, Helga Liberto has patiently studied and created her own Lievito Madre, sourdough, to ensure her cakes may rise naturally and slowly, over many hours. Once baked the texture is so light that she has called it Nuvola, Cloud.

Nuvola

To make it unique Helga has resorted to one of the things that make Italy such a beautiful country: Territory. We are blessed with extreme bio-diversity, each local area has its own peculiar produce that can be found nowhere else. Thus the key ingredient of her Nuvola del Vesuvio is the famous Pellecchiella Apricot from – you guessed it – Mount Vesuvius. This very tasty apricot, sought after by jam makers like a precious jewel, is part of the Slow Food Presidia. It gives Helga’s creation that personal, delicate forget-me-not flavour. Orange zest, candid lemon and orange peel, honey, raisins and vanilla complete the picture giving each slice of the cake a balanced bouquet of delicate aromas.

Eating a slice for breakfast really does remind me of the delicate flight of a butterfly, framed by soft clouds with Vesuvius in the background. The apricot, honey and raisins blended smoothly leaving me with an overall sense of well-rounded sweetness, quite a pleasant surprise. Will you have time to savour it after Christmas dinner, with the kids dying to open their presents and aunts and uncles wanting another slice?

Side story

Getting the cake home before tasting it was a challenge in itself. The packaging is so elegant, that at first it reminded me of a posh handbag. I had to defend it from many beady eyes along the way. Especially those of my local baker, who has a keen eye for quality and a real passion for handcrafted Panettone. She was quick to read the ingredients and grasp the meaning of this dreamlike Vesuvius Cloud.

Sean Grant Altamura