Feast of Seven fishes

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It all started with me meeting my Italian friend, Massimo and we were talking about Christmas coming up. And he said I love it because we always eat baccalá on Christmas Eve. We’ve already started planning the menu with my sister whose husband runs a restaurant in Pontremoli (Tuscany). What was baccala I asked him because I have never heard of it and he became so enthusiastic and told the next: Baccalá is the Feast of the Seven Fishes and it’s an Italian celebration of Christmas Eve with dishes of fish and other seafood. Although it is not called on that name in Italy and is not a “feast” in the sense of “holiday,” but rather a grand meal.-continued Massimo with wide theatrical gestures that are so characteristic of him.- -“Christmas Eve is a vigil or fasting day, and the abundance of seafood reflects the observance of abstinence from meat until the feast of Christmas Day itself. Today, the meal typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. The tradition comes from Southern Italy, where it is known as The Vigil (La Vigilia). This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus (It was introduced in the United States by Southern Italian immigrants in New York City’s Little Italy in the late 1800s.)

The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on the eve of a feast day. As no meat or animal fat could be used on such days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish (typically fried in oil).

The number seven? It is unclear when or where the term “Feast of the Seven Fishes” was popularized. It may come from the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church or the Seven hills of Rome or something else. There is no general agreement on its meaning. The salted cod fish’s custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà reflects customs in what were historically impoverished regions of Southern Italy, as well as seasonal factors. Fried smelts, calamari and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years. The meal includes seven or more fishes that are considered traditional. (In some Italian-American families, there is no count of the number of fish dishes.)

-“Our typical feast-meal’s components may include some combination of anchovies, whiting, lobster, sardines, baccalá (dried salt cod) smelts, eels, squid, octopus, shrimps, mussels and clams. The menu may also include pasta, vegetables, baked goods and don’t forget the wine.

But what happened on the other day? I talked to my Mexican friend Louis and he told me that there is no Xmas without bachalao! Okay and when I made some research on that I found out that baccala is not an Italian tradition at all, it’s rather Norwegian where dried and salted cod or saltfish which has been preserved by drying after salting (Cod which has been dried without the addition of salt is stockfish). Salt cod was long a major export of the North Atlantic region, and has become an ingredient of many cuisines around the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean.

Dried and salted cod has been produced for over 500 years in Newfoundland, Iceland and the Faroe Island and most particularly in Norway where it is called klippfisk, literally “cliff-fish”. Traditionally it was dried outdoors by the wind and sun, often on cliffs and other bare rock-faces. Today klippfisk is usually dried indoors with the aid of electric heaters. In Norway, Bacalao refers  to a “stockfish/klippfisk casserole” with tomatoes, olives, onions, and peppers, but not always, because of the numerous recipes for this Norwegian fish dish. However, it is always made with salted, dried cod, (stockfish) as the main ingredient. Kristiansund S, is a city well known for their version of Bacalao. Other parts of the country have their own special way of making Bacalao.

But before it can be eaten, salt cod must be rehydrated and desalinated by soaking in cold water for one to three days, changing the water two to three times a day. The best Norwegian recipe comes from Kristiansand from a small but famous village of Norway. Here is the best recipe of baccalá:

Ingredients
1 lb salted cod, 4 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped, 6 or less large onions, chopped, 1/4 cup (or less) olive oil, 3 tablespoons dry sherry, 4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped (canned whole tomatoes work great) 4 tablespoons green olives, sliced, 5 cloves garlic, minced, 1 fresh or dried jalapeno pepper minced
4-ounces pimientos, 1/2 cup pitted black olives (Greek optional), 1/2 teaspoon oregano (optional)
Freshly ground pepper, salt to taste

Preparation
Soak salted cod for 12 hours Change water every 4 hours. Drain and shred fish. Saute onions and garlic in oil.
Add oregano, parsley, olives, pimentos, jalapenos, wine and simmer.
Layer sauteed vegetables, potatoes,shredded fish, salt and pepper.Drizzle remainder of the oil.
Bake at 350°F. for 35-40 minutes and you have Bacalao. Serve with Greek or Italian bread and salad and of course, don’t forget your favorite bottle of wine. Skål!

There is no Christmas without baccalá

In Europe, the baccalá dish is prepared for the table in a wide variety of ways; most commonly with potatoes and onions in a casserole, as croquettes, or as battered, deep-fried pieces. In France, brandade de morue is a popular baked gratin dish of potatoes mashed with rehydrated salted cod, seasoned with garlic and olive oil. Some Southern France recipes skip the potatoes altogether and blend the salted cod with seasonings into a paste. There is a particularly wide variety of salt cod (bacalhau) dishes 

In several islands of the West Indies, it forms the basis of the common dish saltfish. In Jamaica, the national dish is ackee and saltfish. In Bermuda, it is served with potatoes, avocado, banana and boiled egg in the traditional codfish and potato breakfast.

In Liverpool England, prior to the post-war slum clearances, especially around the docks salt fish was a popular traditional Sunday morning breakfast.

In Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, (In Greece, fried cod is often served with skordalia), Brazil, the term Bacalao is used for stockfish (salted dried cod). In Spain (bacalao/bacalhau), the recipe calls for stockfish, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, Spanish peppers, and oil and they call it Bacalao en Salza.Bacalao, an international affair…In Mexico, where there will not be Christmas without Bacalao, they combine shredded stockfish with salsa, finely diced onions, chili, olive oil, almonds, parsley, cubed potatoes, capers, olives and simmer it slowly and they have Christmas Bacalao. In some regions of Mexico it is fried with egg batter, then simmered in red sauce and served for Christmas dinner.

At the supermarket you can find frozen ready-made Bacalao for your convenience if you live in Norway, that is. In the United States, salted, dried cod/klippfisk can be found in a 1-lb wooden box in your grocer’s meat department, or frozen in 1-lb packages at Walmarts.

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