A Passion for Salt Cod

This centuries-old sailors’ staple is a treat known ’round the world

After a wet and windy sail across Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, on Morgan’s Cloud, our McCurdy & Rhodes custom cutter, my partner, John, and I dropped sails and motored into a snug little island harbor with a few houses on the shore and a wooden dock with a fishing boat alongside. As we circled the harbor trying to decide where to anchor, a man came out of the house, moved the fishing boat to a mooring, and beckoned us to come alongside his dock — a typical warm Newfoundland welcome. After chatting for a while, he wandered back to the house and came out a few minutes later, carrying a fishing pole. When John asked him what he was fishing for, he looked momentarily confused, then answered, “Boy, I’m not going fishing, I’m going trouting!” You see, to a Newfoundlander, “fish” means “cod” and “saltfish” is only and always “salt cod.”

In Newfoundland, the process of salting and air-drying cod was developed in the 1500s and where my passion for salt fish began. I’m a native Canadian, and despite being from the prairies, when I eventually moved to St. John’s, I took to salt fish like a native. My favorite Newfoundland dishes are fish and brewis — salt fish and hardtack boiled together and topped with cracklings (rendered pork fat) — and fishcakes made with salt fish.

Imagine my surprise when later in life I moved to Bermuda, John’s home, and found that salt fish is part of the diet and culture there, too, even though the cod banks are far away. Bermuda’s attachment to salt fish started in the 18th century when a triangle trade was set up by Bermudians who raked salt in the Turks and Caicos, took it to Newfoundland in the fast Bermuda schooners, and exchanged it for salt fish, which was then taken back to Bermuda. Bermudians, however, have a different way of preparing it than Newfoundlanders do: They boil salt fish and potatoes, cover it all with banana sauce and olive oil and serve it for breakfast! Not surprisingly, I never took to that particular salt fish dish. But fishcakes made with salt fish are popular there, too, especially at Easter.

Some years later John and I sailed to Norway and fell in love with its wonderful people, beautiful scenery, and seemingly endless diverse anchorages. Norway is a leading exporter of salt fish to countries around the world, so there too I could indulge my passion and feel at home.

Salt fish is popular in many other parts of the world as well. For me, it proves once again what cruisers know so well: that the world really is a very small place.

North Atlantic Salt Cod Cakes_

1 ½ cups mashed potatoes*
1 cup salt fish, soaked, boiled, drained, and flaked
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon summer savory OR parsley
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cornmeal, for coating
Olive oil, for cooking
*for best flavor, make with butter and whole milk

Soak salt fish in water overnight, changing the water at least twice. Use a third batch of fresh water for boiling. Boil until fish flakes when prodded with a fork — about 10 minutes. Drain well and mix with remaining ingredients, using just enough of the egg to make a mixture that holds together well. Make fishcakes to desired size (mine are about two inches in diameter and ¾-inch thick) and lightly coat with cornmeal. Heat a small amount of olive oil in a heavy skillet. When the oil is hot, fry cakes until heated through and brown on both sides, using more olive oil as needed. Serve with mayonnaise and a crisp green salad (a Bermudian twist) or hearty brown bread (a Norwegian addition) or with French fries (the Newfoundland way). Makes six fish cakes.