Salt cod and chickpeas
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.