Salt, olive oil, and Canadian cod

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, European fishermen were coming annually to the eastern shores of North America. They came in search of the cod that congregated by the millions on the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic. One contemporary account says that the cod were so numerous that sailors could harvest them by merely lowering a weighted basket to the ocean floor.

The fishermen would take their catch ashore to salt and dry it in preparation for the voyage home. Laid out on the rocks of this newly found land, the fresh cod were transformed into a highly portable protein that could easily survive the long ocean crossing to distant markets. This dried fish fetched high prices in Catholic Europe, where a good number of the days on the liturgical calendar were considered “lean days” – no meat allowed.

Since the preservation process required large quantities of salt, southern France was a natural market for the dried cod, drawing Breton and Basque merchants who would pay in cod for the “white gold” they needed for their Atlantic excursions. Once in the kitchens of Languedoc, the dried fish underwent a further transformation into the hot purée that would come to be known as brandade. This mixture of Mediterranean olive oil and Canadian cod is the ultimate comfort food for a cold January day. It is also a testament to the vast trading network responsible for the Europeanization of the North American continent.

11 thoughts on “Salt, olive oil, and Canadian cod”

  1. I have had brandade in my native France, and it is delicious. however it is eaten all over France and not only in Languedoc. Keep sending your mail, I enjoy them.

  2. Quelle belle collaboration entre les vieux pays et le Nouveau Monde….de plus c est une recette delicieuse pour tout amateur de poisson. merci Neil pour l historique et bon appétit !

  3. Love codfish. Love fish in general. Thank You for this interesting piece. My Dad’s people are from Guysborough County, Nova Scotia and my Mom (and I) from northeast Scotland, where fish is king. when we moved from Scotland to Canada at the close of WW2 my mother was surprised to learn that the only fish available was salt cod or smelts. Although it was only 15 miles to the Atlantic Ocean fish was only eaten on Fridays. Waaa waa..

  4. Neil, I really enjoy your informative articles. My family settled near Quebec City in the 1640’s before moving south to the states in the early 19th century. Keep the information coming.

  5. Karen and Rodney Rich

    Brandade sounds delicious. Our temperature here in Western New York is 9 degrees. We would love to eat some “comfort food”on these cold days. We have not heard about this cod dish, but we will start checking out restaurants and cook books. Thanks for the info. Your writing is very informative and enjoyable. We remember that you enjoy the cold winter season. Enjoy these cold temperatures.

  6. Bonjour Mr Neil, bonne et heureuse année 2015, que la joie et la paix innonde votre monde de bonne heure et de bonheurs. Merci pour la recette de brandade de cabillaud (poisson frais) ou morue-bacalao portugais salé/séché pour la conservation. NFL – 1472 – Terra de Bacallaos – part of the mythical island ( voir:
    J’adore frais avec beurre, échalotte grise, brocoli croquant,pomme vapeur ou en robe des champs ou salée _désalée au lait, pomme purée soit pilée, épinards grande feuille étuvée à l’huile d’olive. Bon appétit, beau mois de “Janeiro”

  7. Hi Neil,

    And, do you know that Indians received the authorization from the Pope to eat the rear part of beavers during “lean days” of Catholicism, because the Pope said that the front part was meat…but the rear part, especially the flat tail (the most delicious section of the beaver), was fish !!! How to marry religion and business….

    Denis Laberge

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