In 2001 a calendar event of significance was noted when an assortment of Venetian artists, historians, restauranteurs, writers and baccalà lovers launched the Dogale Confraternita del Baccalà Mantecato.
Their aim was the dissemination of the traditional recipe – cod, garlic and olive oil – because baccalà mantecato is not just food. ‘It is history, religion, adventure, secrets handed down from cook to cook, from mother to daughter: the pleasure of the palate, mind, heart.’
Stockfish is imported into northern and southern Italy, to Calabria, Campania, Liguria, Sicily and Veneto, taking two-thirds of the Norwegian production.
In northern Italy they like their stockfish lean and thin, in southern Italy they prefer it fat and thick but in Venice they demand the best and it is graded as such, imported by fish merchants from the Polesine, south of the lagoon city.
In 2014 packets of stockfish cost between €23 and €40 a kilo in the shops and supermarkets. Baccalà is stick, mantecato is beaten, thus beaten stick fish.
Legend has it that Venetian merchant Pietro Querini and 68 sailors sought refuge from a storm on the Lofoten Islands, where they witnessed the art of air drying the north Atlantic cod, turning it into hard stick-like fish.
It is not known whether they brought recipes as well as dried fish back from Norway. That was in the 1430s. In 1563, after the Council of Trent and the directive on a required abstinence from meat, dried cod dishes were served every Wednesday and Friday in parts of Italy. Bartolomeo Scappi, chef de cuisine of Pius V, established baccalà mantecato as a traditional dish.
This is the original recipe and method as determined by the Dogale Confraternita del Baccalà Mantecato in Venice.
- 250 g stockfish, soaked for 48 hours in 12 changes of fresh water, skinned, de-boned
- Olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 lemon, quartered
- Salt, pinch
- Pepper, pinch
Put the cod in a pot, cover with lightly salted cold water and bring to a low boil, simmer for 20 minutes with lemon and bay leaf. Whip the cod by hand with a wooden spoon, letting it absorb the drizzled oil ‘as if it were a mayonnaise’ to produce a shiny homogenous mass.
Season and finish with a little of the cod cooking water.
‘The dish is traditionally garnished with chopped parsley and accompanied by fresh or grilled Venetian white pearl polenta.’