Portugal has some quirks. One of the biggest head-scratchers is its love affair with bacalhau or stinky salt cod to laypeople. Why a country known for its seamanship and rich fishing grounds would prefer salted dried cod over the tasty fresh stuff is baffling. Equally perplexing is why generations of Portuguese fishermen risked their lives in the most inhospitable seas in the world just to bring back the makings for croquettes and 101 other cod dishes.
It’s complicated, as we found out on our visit to the multi-story museum complex dedicated to bacalhau just a block from our apartment. International trade compacts, politics, geography, wars, dictatorships, and pride all played a role in making the humble cod a symbol of gastronomy, culture, and maritime history in this country.
We didn’t have high expectations for this museum, officially called the Interpretative Center of the History of Cod. But we thoroughly enjoyed the museum’s slick and entertaining multimedia and sensory exhibits that bring the story of cod alive. For example, in one small room, you can put on fisherman’s gear and climb aboard a small dory. Suddenly the boat begins rocking, cold air blows in and the walls become video screens of raging waters. It’s uncomfortable but not nearly as uncomfortable as it was for the poor fisherman who has to spend 12 hours a day off the coasts of Greenland and Newfoundland in pursuit of cod. But we did get the point. It was miserable and dangerous work.
We’re not generally bacalhau fans, tho there were some tempting recipes by top chefs on display. But we left with a newfound respect for the humble fish and the heroic Portuguese fisherman who risked their lives to bring it home to the table.