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Bacalao

Freda Isaksen

I call Norway home because I lived there for several years and I grew to love that country when I thought I would live there for the rest of my life. 1

Anyone who looks at a map of Norway will immediately see the unusual shape of that country. The coastline is very long and the width of the country is very narrow. Even on a map it is obvious that the coast is very rugged with inlets which are actually inlets from the ocean. These fjords can be as wide as even a mile or as narrow as a large ship which will traverse them and almost scrape the sides. All of them are extremely beautiful with low lying mountains and hills on both sides, snow covered in winter. In summer the green trees and forests and waterfalls are profuse and cover the countryside.

Many of these areas which are open to the sea are populated with small towns and cities and also with thousands of villages, some of which are remote and accessible only by water, consequently the mail is delivered by ships. Very often the inhabitants are not able to leave their homes throughout several weeks or even months at a time because of the severe weather in winter. Ice does not form in the salt water of the fjords so mail and other necessities are delivered daily.

During the summer months these ships accommodate tourists, and it is a fascinating experience to travel this way to view the coastline of Norway and visit the surrounding area when the ship docks.

Along the way one will see how many of the Norwegian people earn their living and sustain their families by fishing in the sea for their daily food. It is a known fact that the most delectable fish is found in cold waters. Around this northern country the water is indisputably icy cold. If not for the waters which flow from the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean into the Norwegian Sea, the climate in this region of the world would be intolerable.

Fishing is the major industry in Norway, so consequently it is an important source of food for the country’s inhabitants. Because the winters are so severe, the fishermen cannot venture into the sea in their small boats, so during the spring, summer and fall months they will catch a plentiful supply and very often salt down their catch to preserve it, or in modern times they will freeze it or pack it into the snow. Commercial companies catch, prepare and freeze the fish on board for home consumption and for export. Northern fish is renowned all over the world as being especially delicious and nowadays it is freshly caught and flown to many countries in refrigerated containers.

All over the world there is a market for cheaper and competitive products, so commercial companies will fish for the cod which is plentiful and then dry it on open racks after it has been boned and filleted. This is a fairly easy method of preserving the food and anyone travelling along the coastline will surely see long lines of these racks with the fish drying and turning a light brown color. Of course the fish shrinks as it loses its moisture, so it is easily packed and is edible indefinitely when correctly prepared.

The Norwegian people themselves do not partake of this dried fish. Why would they when the same natural product is so easily obtained and nourishing when it is fresh? Consequently it is considered to be an inferior meal. It’s called bacalao.

Many of my readers may have heard of lutefisk. This cod definitely needs an acquired palate. It is prepared in a very special and unique manner, and the result gives it an acid flavor. It is considered traditional for holiday gatherings as well as a staple in many native households. I would say that only a dyed in the wool Norwegian could appreciate it. This dried product is exported to every country where Norwegians have emigrated.

Of course other countries all over the world have large coastal areas and produce excellent fish which is deliciously prepared in homes and in restaurants. While travelling in Greece I wanted to partake of a good meal of Greek seafood from local waters. I chose an exclusively fish restaurant but found it difficult to place an order because the menu was written in the Greek language. I had discovered that in the Greek eateries the management will invite their patrons into the kitchen to view the different food available. Then it is easier to make a choice, and lots of fun besides to see the cooked foods in the cooking utensils. After looking around at several pans of ready to eat fish with strange names I made my selection. In some countries one will often be served fish with the bone intact. After all the meat next to the bone is considered to be the most delicious by fish eating connoisseurs. My choice appeared to be boneless, covered with a light sauce and the sight of it whetted my appetite.

While waiting for my meal to be served I started a conversation with a Greek lady sitting nearby. In foreign countries the inhabitants are most eager to converse with English speaking tourists. I told her that I had lived in countries where fish is plentiful and I wished to taste that food from Greek waters. When the waiter placed my order before me the lady exclaimed, “This fish is imported, it is dried cod.” Immediately there flashed into my mind remembrances of racks of dried cod on the Norwegian coast and one word came into my head, a word I had not heard during the fifty years that elapsed since I left Norway. “Bacalao!” I said. “Yes, it’s bacalao,” the lady answered.

How ironic that I had come to Greece to eat what I never would have considered consuming in Scandinavia. It was very good prepared as a gourmet meal and maybe this former Norwegian might even cook it herself someday.

Footnotes

  1. See Freda’s Autobiography for an explanation of how she came to live in Norway.


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.

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