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.