Salt cod and chick­peas

The Guardian - Feast - - Front Page - Rachel Roddy

Salt cod and chick­pea soup

Walk around Rome on a Fri­day and you might no­tice a sign say­ing

bac­calà bag­nato, or a tub out­side a shop filled with wa­ter and fil­lets of fish so white, they seem to glow. Walk through a mar­ket and you might spot a box of salt-en­crusted fil­lets and catch a pun­gent whiff.

It is bac­calà, or salt cod.

The Vik­ings may have been the first to cure cod by dry­ing, and the Egyp­tians and Ro­mans salted fish. It was the Basques, though, around the year 1000, with the means to fish ex­ten­sively and gain ac­cess to salt, who dis­cov­ered that cod salted be­fore dry­ing lasted longer and rarely spoiled. It was their

ba­ca­leo, which be­came ba­cal­hau in Por­tuguese and bac­calà in Ital­ian, that ex­panded the cod mar­ket into an in­ter­na­tional trade.

In his fas­ci­nat­ing book Cod, Mark Kurlan­sky ex­plains how the me­dieval church im­posed fast days on which the eat­ing of flesh was for­bid­den, but cold food was per­mit­ted. Cod is from wa­ter, there­fore cold, so the Basques, wily traders that they were, stepped in. Lean days all over Europe be­came syn­ony­mous with salt cod.

Times may have changed, but in Rome, the tra­di­tion of eat­ing fish on Fri­days, whether to ob­serve a lean day, or sim­ply be­cause of habit, per­sists. And the fish is of­ten still bac­calà, ei­ther bat­tered and fried, baked with fruit or onions, braised with toma­toes and vine­gar, or sim­mered into a rich soup with its lean-day com­pan­ion, chick­peas.

My favourite of the salt cod and chick­pea soups is maybe the most straight­for­ward: just chick­peas, wa­ter, olive oil, onion, gar­lic and salt cod. It is not the quick­est, although I am sure you could make ad­just­ments. For it, 300g of chick­peas are soaked for 24 hours, cov­ered with new wa­ter and sim­mered un­til ten­der. In an­other pan, a diced onion and chopped clove of gar­lic are fried gen­tly in olive oil un­til soft and fra­grant, then the chick­pea and cook­ing liq­uid is added, along with 400g of soaked salt cod, and then ev­ery­thing is sim­mered for 15 min­utes.

I have writ­ten about bac­calà be­fore, how it needs to be washed, then soaked, with sev­eral changes of wa­ter, for any­thing from 12 to 48 hours de­pend­ing on size and salti­ness of the fish. With added risk. As Gil­lian Ri­ley notes: “Too much soak­ing can make the flesh soggy and taste­less.” Wet car­pet comes to mind. Too lit­tle soak­ing “leaves it des­per­ately salty and stringy”. In short, it is a palaver, the op­po­site of fast food. What’s more, there is al­ways a chance that un­der the salt, the cod has turned. Try as you might, you can’t ig­nore the odd smell as you slice and sim­mer.

So to re­cap, the soup could take you two days and there is a slim chance the piece of cod you have pur­chased, bathed and soaked like a new­born could have turned. But there is also a much greater chance that you will turn out to be an ex­pert soaker and that, as it sim­mers, the salt cod – which tastes to me like fresh cod with well-sea­soned mus­cles and wit – falls into fat flakes in the soft, ac­com­mo­dat­ing soup.

Crou­tons and a pinch of red chilli flakes sprin­kled on top make it even bet­ter.

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