On Lisbon’s Rua do Arsenal, whole window displays are lined with what looks like crinkly grey cardboard. The smell is far from alluring, but from these humble slabs of cod the Portuguese are able to conjure up an alleged 365 different recipes for bacalhau, one for each day of the year. Reassuringly, none of this mummified fish dates back to when it first became popular in the 1500s, when the Corte Real brothers sailed as far as Newfoundland for its rich cod banks. To preserve the fish for the journey back, the brothers salted and dried it – the result was an instant hit both with Portuguese landlubbers and navigators, who could safely store it for their long explorations of the new world.
Nowadays, bacalhau is the national dish, served in just about every restaurant in the country and every family home on Christmas Day. Even in Setúbal – where harbour restaurants are stacked with the fresh variety – salted cod appears on most menus, bathed in water for up to two days, and then its skin and bones pulled away from the swelled and softened flesh, before being boiled and strained into a fishy goo.
Some bacalhau dishes can be an acquired taste. My first experience was in a restaurant on the mosaic-paved old town of Cascais, where my stolid bacalhau com grau (boiled with chick peas) nearly put me off for life. But start with
rissóis de bacalhau (cod rissoles), commonly served as a bar snack, and you’ll soon be hooked. Then move on to bacalhau com natas (baked with cream) or bacalhau a brás (with fried potatos, olives and egg) and there’s no looking
With fourteen bacalhau options on its menu, Sabores a Bacalhau, in Lisbon’s Parque das Nações, is a good place to start. In a restaurant swathed in decorative azulejos tiles appropriately showing sea creatures, a waiter tells me, “Bacalhau is like the Kama Sutra. There may be hundreds of different variations, but you get to know the two or three types that are enjoyable!”. Only the Portuguese could compare bacalhau with sex, but you can’t argue that it is