Cod almighty

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Milan's Via Monte Napoleone, cod and stockfish, antiques and jewellery, Norwegian fjords: what have these got in common? Well, firstly, it seems that the Norwegian Fish council put up a billboard in what is part of Milan's Bermuda Triangle when it comes to smart shopping, which read "Via Monte Napoleone is full of stockfish and baccala." These, as you no doubt know, are dried and salt fish - great but humble food. Secondly, was an angry protest from the association representing bauble-makers such as Pederzani and rag-traders like Krizia and Gianfranco Ferre: the Norwegians were lowering the tone of their district. This didn't get a lot of action, so the association threatened to go to law, because, as you might expect, you can call somebody a cod or a stockfish, as in "thin as a piece of dried cod".

Well, since the anorexic modish throng in that area, why not? Because to the humourless merchants of Via della Spiga, Piazza San Babila and Via Monte Napoleone it's an outright insult to advertise the fish of the poor and the humble in an area devoted to the rich and the overbearing. The reaction among food lovers was not long in coming, affirming what we have always known: that salt cod and wind-dried stockfish, like a whole lexicon of their cousins, are delicious food, fit for the mighty, and are making a powerful comeback.

These are parts of the world, of course, by the sea, where baccala (or bacalao), salted or dried, has always been eaten. It was standard winter fare for the Spanish, Normans, Portuguese and Italians who fished the Atlantic waters; and summer fare, too, when it could be eaten with richer sauces. For cod was then cheap and plentiful, and the idea of always having some fish on hand was an attractive one.

With refrigeration and freezing, the salt cod trade was restricted to a peculiar sort of ethnic enclave. If you could get fresh turbot and John Dory, why eat old, dry cod? The current revival rests on two basic considerations, well stated by Paul Bocuse: the days of the "aristocratic" fish are numbered - at ten or more quid a kilo, brill is overpriced - and "the current trend in food (it is one I applaud) is the rediscovery of the great cuisine of the people, what peasants and fishermen cook and eat, their rich, tasty, full-flavoured dishes."

That, bacalao certainly is. So individual and so marked is its flavour that it has passed into Spanish as a proverb - Ya te conozco bacalao, an que disfrazado - particularly applicable to phoneys: "You may dress like a man of God, but I know you're just a piece of cod." For the good and obvious reason that you don't just reach up and cut off a piece of salt cod hanging in your kitchen and chew on it: no, it takes preparation and art, a disguise, to be disfrazado.

Salt cod is not that difficult to find, but it does look daunting until the first time you try it. It generally comes in long, board-like half- fishes, either in a barrel or hanging warm and dry, and it comes back to life, quite wonderfully (and with far more flavour than frozen fish), just by being soaked in water. The rule is to put it, skin upwards, to float in water for four or five days, changing the water daily to get rid of the salt (the skin is upward because it retains more salt, and this should be allowed to evaporate). By flaking the cod, or cutting it into smaller pieces, you can decrease the time needed; and by changing the water more often you can have your cod ready within 24 hours.

Once you have your reconstituted cod, the ways of cooking it are endless and are nearly all splendid (but avoid Scandinavian recipes). Bocuse serves it in his restaurant, poached slowly in an olive oil-based aioli, or, in its most familiar Provencal fashion, as a brandade, a succulent, soft dish that is made in all sorts of ways, but basically by forking cod in with garlic, olive oil and cream (often with potatoes, too) and pounding it until its consistency is absolutely pure and smooth. You can, of course, cook your cod as you would any fish, simply by frying it or poaching it, or you can invent an infinity of dishes with salt cod (it blends superbly with many ingredients), but my suggestion is that you try some of the traditional recipes first: for instance the bacalhau dourado of Portugal, for which the admirable Alan Davidson has a recipe in his North Atlantic Seafood.

I have Portuguese cousins, and my way differs in some respects, but basically the dish (which serves six to eight) is a mixture of deep-fried potatoes (1kg/2.2lb), cod (1kg/2.2lb, flaked) and eggs (10). Fry the potatoes, cut thin and square, in batches and set aside. Mix eggs and 2 tablespoons milk with some chopped parsley and fresh ground pepper. In a large frying pan heat olive oil (6 tbsp) and butter (110g/4oz) and wilt thoroughly (6-7 minutes) chopped onions (3-4, depending on size) and garlic (2 cloves). Add flaked cod, mixing constantly, and continue frying for another 6-7 minutes. Put this mix, in which the olive oil will have been fully absorbed, into a bowl and set aside; wipe pan clean; heat 110g/4oz butter; add half the potatoes and half the fish mixture; stir to combine the ingredients, then pour in half the egg mixture set aside earlier. Cook as you would scrambled eggs, turning rather than beating (about 3 minutes), and put on to a serving dish, which must be hot. Repeat with a second batch, with more butter. Serve sprinkled with parsley and, if your olives are good and black and still oily, dotted with olives. This dish is a fine mix of textures and flavours, and is much lighter than it sounds.