Books: Something fishy

The piece of cod that passes for supper today is a poor substitute for the fish the Vikings ate, says James Hamilton-Paterson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world

by Mark Kurlansky

Cape, pounds 12.99

One of the consequences of a lengthening life is the perspective that allows comparisons of scarcity and plenty in foodstuffs. We Second World War babies grew up with strict rationing as the norm in a world of acute shortages. Compared with today's wild prodigality of every conceivable food in the shops of the developed world, available regardless of season and in seemingly unlimited quantities, those years of half a century ago might seem of a prison-camp leanness.

Yet there were things in our diet that gave evidence of a plenty that today has actually dwindled. We grew up on whalemeat (cheap, fairly abundant and not very agreeable) but also on cod steaks that had clearly been cut from fish at least a metre long, with thick juicy flakes of milky whiteness that separated like nested cushions. Even in those pinched postwar years a fish like the humble coalfish (coley) was considered scarcely fit for human consumption. We gave it to cats. Since cod, coalfish, haddock, whiting and hake are related species within the same codfish order, this was largely due to conservatism of habit, much as northern fish-and-chip shop customers insist on haddock while southerners prefer cod.

Today, one has only to look at the ice-stiffened cuts on sale in supermarket freezers to appreciate that the size of fish now considered commercial is half what it used to be. The Atlantic cod is an animal which, left to live its life span of 20 or more years, can reach the length and weight of a tall man. The salted fillets in my local Co-op here in Italy have clearly been stripped from juveniles that would barely reach a man's knee. The most demanding market for cod has always been the Mediterranean; and if Italian baccala has so sadly declined in quality it is surely a sign of trouble.

Mark Kurlansky's book explains exactly how this has come about; how we are "at the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree" stretching back to Viking days. It is nearly always a good ploy to take a particular commodity (copper, salt, oil, rubber) and trace its influence since it can open up all sorts of lesser-known historical byways and provide a vital subtext to world events. Cod proves no exception. This voracious, but somewhat sluggish, bottom-dwelling, cold-water fish was the Vikings' staple diet on their long transatlantic journeys. So it was until recently in the Icelanders' diet. In a wheatless country, they used to spread it with butter for school elevenses. The split cod were dried in the freezing wind. During the process they lost most of their water content, concentrated themselves into 80 per cent protein and became as stiff as sticks: hence their name, "stockfish".

The Vikings' problem was that they had no salt to preserve cod for longer periods and in different climates. The Basques had; and it was they who discovered the secret fishing ground we know today as Newfoundland's Grand Banks. They salted their catches and nourished a European taste that grew into a huge commercial trade. Thereafter, the race was on to discover the Basques' rich source of cod.

By the late 15th century the fish had become a vital strategic commodity, since salt cod afforded the bulk of the protein that nourished the great voyages of exploration and Europe's fighting navies. The 50 little sailing ships that fished the Grand Banks out of Plymouth prompted Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595 to write "if these should be lost it would be the greatest blow ever given to England".

After several years' hopeless ineptitude, the Pilgrim zealots who had landed in New England began exploiting the resource that gave Cape Cod its name, and launched an industry that generated vast fortunes. Kurlansky's linking of this fishing wealth with the Caribbean rum trade, slavery and American Independence is fascinating, and deftly done. Thereafter, his tale becomes grimly familiar: that of the effect on fisheries everywhere of technological advance.

It started with the invention of the trawl net, a device which became devastatingly effective when it was allied to steam power. The British North Sea fleet pioneered this in the mid-19th century. Together with the invention of refrigeration and the quick distribution network made possible by railways, these advances changed the industry, just as they began drastically to affect fish stocks.

In the early part of this century the eccentric American, Clarence Birdseye, was the first to invent a technique for freezing vegetables, meat and fish so they retained their structure and flavour largely unimpaired. Birdseye's frozen fish helped change forever the relationship of seafood companies to fishing ports. During the Second World War the three basic techniques - trawls, powered vessels and freezing - were physically united in the first factory ships. With the invention of electronic sounding, navigation and finding devices such as sonar, they further streamlined the entire operation in today's ruthlessly competitive, hi-tech harvesting of the oceans.

From then on, the global political aspects of commercial fisheries became all-important. Kurlansky gives a sound account of the postwar narrative; from the adoption of national 200-mile limits to the British cod wars with Iceland in the Seventies, to Canada's declaration of a complete fishing moratorium on the Grand Banks in 1992. The book is topped and tailed with touching accounts of the social effects of this moratorium on a Newfoundland fishing town (and they are practically all fishing towns in Newfoundland).

To round out the cultural role played by this remarkable fish, the author - who is also a food historian - interleaves his chapters with a selection of cod recipes ranging from the medieval to the present- day. They are all based on the idea that cod must be quiveringly fresh, cooked quickly but lightly, and be thick. The celebrated Paul Bocuse begins a simple masterpiece: "Use a piece of cod about 30 centimetres long cut from the centre of the fish..." That says it all; and leaves one ruefully contemplating the costly piscine rubble sold as food in supermarket freezers.

This book is of the type that used to be known as a monograph; the systematic account of a single subject, aiming for a definitive overview. As such, it is a great success. Kurlansky even resists sounding either elegiac or shrill when he discusses the unknown future of the cod. He probably gives enough zoological information to satisfy most readers, so maybe it is ungracious to wish he had been more scientifically detailed at times.

As a notorious example of the 19th-century optimism (and ignorance) that overflowed that century until almost the present day, he quotes the influential T H Huxley's assertion, not based on knowledge of any fish population's ability to reproduce itself, that the fear of over-fishing was unscientific - as Nature being truly indomitable. Yet the first British fishing commission, as early as 1862, had been convened expressly because the North Sea herring stocks were being drastically depleted.

The impression one might get from Kurlansky is that oceanology has mostly been as blindly ignorant of fishes' breeding habits as fishermen themselves have been breezily dismissive of suggestions that they might be to blame. Yet several inquiries were held in the latter half of last century. Meanwhile, scientists such as the Norwegian Johan Hjort made pioneering discoveries about the dynamics of fish populations, as well as ways of establishing a fish's age, that have underlain all subsequent study.

Our ignorance of fish is indeed still woeful, so this may sound like quibbling. But had Kurlansky gone slightly deeper into the scientific aspects, he might have strengthened still further the point of his tale: the broad evidence of chronic over-fishing that has been biologically apparent in several species over the last century. Yet this is more an observation on my part than a serious criticism of the author's approach, which is generally admirable.

What is more, the book's value extends beyond its remit. Despite dealing specifically with cod, much of what it says outlines a paradigm applicable to many other commercially exploited species, and not just fish. For anyone wishing to extend their knowledge of ecological crises, the stretched codfish in this lively account provides a salutary tale. The outcome is currently on view in any supermarket.