What to Eat in France: Morue à la marseillaise, Marseille-style Salt Cod
One might ask why the Mediterranean countries — and locations such as Marseille — which have their own fishing waters, would dry a cold water fish such as cod. Fish are not always plentiful enough, for one thing, and when bad harvests arrived, it was handy to fall back on salted fish, which keeps for years. Traditionally, Catholics had to have fish on hand for Fridays, when they were not allowed to eat meat. During the Norwegian famine in 1315-17, Clifford A. Wright says that the Norwegians allowed export of their stockfish and butter in exchange for import of malt, flour, salt, and other commodities they were lacking — things that were readily available in the south. In addition, most salt at that time came from the Mediterranean, so the Nordic countries needed it to make their salt cod.
The term morue is generally thought to mean “salt cod,” but technically speaking, it’s simply dried, salted fish of the Gadiformes family. The word stockfish, probably from the Dutch stokvis, is used in many other countries. In contemporary cuisine, one sees the term morue fraîche, which has come to mean “fresh cod,” even though there’s a perfectly good word for fresh cod in French: cabillaud.
In the States, it’s simply “salt cod.” In Massachusetts, it was known as Sacred Cod, since it was a great source of wealth in colonial times. Dried, salt cod was traditionally dried outdoors by the wind and sun on rocks or wooden frames, but today it is usually dried indoors using electric heaters. In Europe, it is usually sold whole with the skin and bones removed.
Salt cod drying in Iceland in 19th century.
Salt cod is present in the cuisine of most of southern Europe, where it is usually eaten with garlic and olive oil. It goes by similar names: bacalhau (Portuguese), bacallà (Catalan), bacalao (Basque), and baccalà (Italian). The French generally use equal portions of potatoes, like in this recipe, and often eat it in the form of brandade, made with mashed cod, olive oil and garlic. Brandade appears as a Friday daily special in many bistros and cafés.
This traditional Provençal recipe doesn’t include garlic. Modern recipes would add a clove or two of garlic.
Salt cod must be soaked two days ahead of time
Medium-size salt cod, about 2 lbs.
3 large tomatoes or 4 medium ones
1 medium onion
Equal weight of potatoes to cod, about 2 lbs.
2-3 T. olive oil
2 cups dry white wine
3 cups hot water
Salt and pepper to taste
Flat parsley, chopped
Saucepan large enough to hold all these ingredients
Desalting the Cod
Martha Rose Shulman suggests soaking cod for 48 hours. Sometimes 24 hours just isn’t enough to remove all the salt, and there’s nothing more unpleasant than overly salty cod. Cut the cod into large chunks and place them in a large bowl or recipient. Cover with water, and change the water every 3 or 4 hours until cooking time. Depending on the temperature in your kitchen, it is advisable to refrigerate it. You can test whether it is desalted enough by pulling off a bit and tasting it. It should be pleasantly briny, but not salty, says Shulman.
- Once the salt cod is desalted and ready for cooking, drain it. If there are still skin and bones, remove them, then cut into small chunks.
- Peel tomatoes and cut in half. Scrape out seeds. Chop finely.
- Chop onion.
- Peel potatoes and slice thinly.
- In a large saucepan, heat olive oil. Brown tomatoes and onion in olive oil.
- Add cod and brown.
- Heat olive oil in a deep frying pan. Brown cod, turning constantly.
- Add white wine. Cook over medium-high heat until it evaporates.
- Add hot water, a pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and turn heat down to medium.
- Remove pits from olives.
- After 20 minutes, add olives.
- Cook for 5 minutes more.
- Sprinkle with parsley and serve piping hot.