Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
Bookmark and Share

Mangia Bene

    Refrigeration and canning had not been invented in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries so Mediterranean fishermen had to preserve their catch by salting. Fish was also preserved in brine or in oil, through smoking and air-drying, but salting was the most common means. The most commonly salted fish were anchovies, eels, sardines, herring, tuna, and tuna eggs in a product called bottarga (in Italy) or poutargue (in France). Throughout the Mediterranean, a great many products were salted, as we see from the thriving business of salted fish in Languedoc--anchovies and eels--exported from the province of Toulouse, which also exported its prunes, saffron, and imported rice. In Languedoc, anchovies were sold in Narbonne in 1560 and salted eels were transported from Carcassonne to Toulouse where 1,500 salted eels were sold in 1468. All of Toulouse's fish, except for anchovies and eels, came Spanish today. The anchovies and eels were always salted. The commerce in salted fish was profitable because the local packers had access to le sel narbonnaise, the salt pans of Narbonne. In January 1424, the buyer for the Archbishopric of Arles went to Ferrières to buy 54 salted eels. He could have also bought some locally produced poutargue, dried pressed tuna roe.

    The salting of fish, mostly sardines and anchovies, was also a major preoccupation along the Croatian coast of the Adriatic. On the west coast of Istria at Isola (Izola), Capo d'Istria (Koper), Pirano (Piran), Rovigno (Rovinj), and on the islands of Lésina (Hvar), Lissa (Vis), and Lagosta (Lastovo), there was an extensive industry of curing of sardines and anchovies, along with, to a lesser degree, mackerel, horse mackerel, and garfish. The fisherman also served as curer and packer. First, he landed the fish, and washed them in sea water. Afterwards the fish were packed in small pine boxes, with salt being spread between each layer. A weight went on top to press out brine and close up air gaps. This process was repeated until the fish, about fifteen hundred in all, were very compressed.

    When a string of bad harvests hit the Mediterranean food supply, coupled with the historically small catch of fish, everyone waited for the arrival of northern grain ships, and increasingly the ships brought salted fish. The discovery of the superabundant Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland by fishermen from northern countries, coupled with the poverty of Mediterranean fish stocks, led to a large trade in cod (the most frequently caught fish in the North Atlantic) with the Mediterranean. The large-scale fishing of the Newfoundland banks began as early as the late fifteenth century, although Basque and Irish fishermen were there earlier. In 1598, English ships were docking in Leghorn with 5,613 casks of smoked herring, 268,645 pesci merluzzi (cod) and 513 fardi (bundles) of pesci stokfiss (air-dried cod called stockfish). Salt cod is such a well-known product in Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, and France that it is hard to remember that virtually all the cod was imported from the North Atlantic.

    There are a variety of reasons for this importation. First, of course, is the lack of abundance in the Mediterranean. Although we know that salted fish was exported from Sicily to Palestine in the 1270s the fish in question was probably herring or tuna and it did not amount to a large trade. Second, the importation of cod increased not only because of Mediterranean demand but also because of favorable trade situations created by the Norwegian famine of 1315-17. King Haakon of Norway issued an edict on July 30, 1316, permitting the export of stockfish and butter only to those who could import malt, flour, salt, and similar commodities in its place. This northern cod reached Sicily through the port of Trapani. This was necessary because the salt pans of Trapani supplied the northern fishermen with the salt they needed to haul back to the North Atlantic to salt the cod.

    Basque, Irish, English, and other northern fishermen had been fishing the waters off Newfoundland from a very early date, but it wasn't until the arrival of countries with the strong navies that cod fishing became big business. Once the navies of England, Holland, and France entered the fray, the small-time fishermen were pushed out.

    The problem faced by open-ocean fishermen of the Middle Ages, after the weather and their fear, was how to preserve the fish in order to get them to market. The solution was to immediately gut the fish on board and pack them in barrels of brine or salt. Alternatively the fish were dried on land and shipped in that state. The fishing off Newfoundland was especially abundant because of a broad continental shelf and an influx of nutrient-rich water at the sides of the shelf, where spawning takes places.* There were light ships, with only twelve fishermen and some more sailors gutting below deck, filling the hold all the way to the bridge with cod. There were also large ships that would salt their cod while still wet, and these were called "green cod." By 1500 thousands of fishermen and seamen were sailing to the Newfoundland banks in a variety of ships and bringing their salt cod either to Brittany, England, Norway, or Holland for shipment or directly to the Mediterranean. Marseilles was a major entrepôt for northern salt cod and took half of the French catch of dried cod and often re-exported it to other parts of the Mediterranean such as Spain and Greece. Genoa also received a good portion of salt cod. Click here to see how to prepare salt cod for cooking, click here for a recipe, and click here for another recipe.

* A continental shelf is the shallow part of the sea floor adjacent to and surrounding the land. The biological resources of an ocean are ultimately related to the production of organic matter by plants. The shallow waters of continental shelves have high production rates of organic matter because of high nutrient content and sunlight for photosynthesis and therefore are a place where fish congregate. Many shelf areas are abundant in nutrients because of upwelling, which brings deep, nutrient-rich waters to the surface so that phytoplankton that the fish feed on have high levels of nutrients to use for photosynthesis. The area off Newfoundland is unique though because it is not an upwelling region. Newfoundland has high phytoplankton production of organic material >500mgC/m2/d (milligrams of carbon per square meter per day) off its northeast continental shelf. It's not known for sure why, but an educated guess is that the high biological production is the result of enhanced vertical mixing at the shelf's edges resulting in an enhanced flux of nutrients over the sides of the shelf. The freshwater discharge from the St. Lawrence watershed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Scotian Shelf, that can be considered an extended estuarine shelf system along with the inshore and offshore branches of the Labrador Current play an important role in controlling the circulation of nutrient-rich waters in this region, Sheila Griffin, Department of Earth Systems Science, University of California, Irvine, e-mail correspondence with the author, January 4, 1999.