Christmas Eve, known as the ‘Consoada’, is when Portuguese families get together to celebrate Christmas. The traditional dinner is salted cod fish (bacalhau) boiled with potatoes, carrots, cabbage, eggs and chickpeas, all covered in olive oil.
Cod has been an important part of the Portuguese diet since Christianity imposed the abstinence of meat during times of fasting. People turned to an alternative fish diet and because dried fish was cheaper than fresh it became part of the culture.
A non-fatty fish, cod has 80% protein with a high nutritional value containing sodium, potassium, iron and vitamins A, B and D. If soaked properly, it is not high in salt and can be grilled, boiled, fried, braised or eaten raw. There are over 1,000 cod recipes in Portugal alone!
The omega-3 fatty acids are concentrated in extracted cod liver oil, which my mother used to give us by the spoonful when we were children. It was revolting!
Although the Portuguese had long fished for cod, it was first documented in 1353 in an agreement between D. Pedro I and Edward II which allowed fishing in British waters. By 1472, the Portuguese had identified Newfoundland on their maps as ‘Land of Codfish’ (Terra dos Bacalhaus) and by 1501 they began to commercialise the cod industry.
The British may be credited with developing salting methods but they imported their salt mostly from Aveiro, in central Portugal. In exchange, during the early 16th century, British ships protected Portuguese ships. However, by the 1580s, England controlled Newfoundland and Portugal was under Spanish rule which meant the Portuguese fleet was attacked and pirated due to the British-Spanish hostilities. When Portugal gained independence in 1640, most of its ships had been destroyed and with the silting over of the port in Aveiro, the Portuguese cod industry deteriorated and most cod was instead imported.
From the 1830s, an attempt was made to revive the fishing industry. Most captains were from Ílhavo and their crew was recruited from Aveiro, Sesimbra and the Algarve. Many young fishermen chose to go to sea for the obligatory six years, to avoid conscription into the army, but life for the fishermen was hard.
Conditions were treacherous as bad weather and icebergs were a constant danger. Journeys lasted from April to October and men often worked 20 hours a day without holidays or weekends. Hygiene was poor, conditions cramped and the crew often went hungry. Tuberculosis was common and 15% of fishermen suffered accidents or illness with on average 10 fishermen dying each trip.
Each ship would have between 10 to 60 dories, small one man oar boats piled on deck. The fishermen would go out, in their dory, at dawn, taking a piece of bread, perhaps fried fish and coffee, to sustain them on the long lonely hours at sea. They fished standing up, using lines with a fishhook on the end, baited with clams, squids or fish found in the stomach of their catch.
Returning to the ship, the fish were gutted and cleaned and the heads and tongues removed to be sold separately. The livers were left in a barrel to decompose in order to separate the oil to make the infamous cod liver oil.
The prepared cod was then put in the hull where it was salted, preserving it for over three months without losing its protein or nutrients. This was the hardest job as the men would be shut in the hull with little light and the intense fish smell. The salt would cause their hands to swell and develop cold sores which would burst and re-scab. At the time, mothers would often tell their naughty children that if they did not behave they would be sent to be a salter on the ships!
In 1926, Portugal introduced new measures to benefit the fishing industry including a single tax on fish and exemption of taxes on capital investments. A society was created to insure boats and equipment and salaries were now in proportion to the catch. There were better recruitment procedures, improved conditions on board and the introduction of frozen bait. However, by the 1940s, Portugal continued to have an uncompetitive small fleet of old wooden ships.
The year 1951 saw the launch of the first super trawler (carrying the British flag) named “Fairtry” which used nets to trawl the sea, catching everything in its wake. The ship contained a processing factory and large freezers and, with its sophisticated radars, it detected shoals of fish in all weathers. In one hour, 200 tons of fish were caught, twice the amount a 16th century ship could catch during a whole fishing season. Unfortunately, this innovation was actually the catalyst in the decline of the Atlantic cod industry.
Diminishing cod stocks in 1968 led to fishing restrictions in various countries’ national waters. Fishermen started to refuse the risky work for low wages and, as emigration and tourism expanded, people went in search of better opportunities.
Portuguese fishermen continued to line fish until 1974, but then Portugal became once again a large importer of the Atlantic variety (Gadus morhua) caught in the north Atlantic and the Arctic. Most imports are from Norway who is now the largest producer.
Today there are only 10 Portuguese boats dedicated to cod fishing even though Portugal has the world’s biggest cod market and one of the largest processing companies, Riberalves. The company has a €150 million turnover, processing 30,000 tons per year, 40% being exported. It was established by João Alves in 1985 who used to follow his dad selling cod door to door in Lisbon. Ready to cook and frozen cod products are gaining popularity but salted cod is still the market leader.
Through overfishing and bad management the Newfoundland cod fish industry collapsed in the early 1990s. In measuring the cod biomass, scientists found it decreased from 450,000 tons in 1990 to less than 2000 tons in 1994. In 2012, stocks increased to 38,000 tons but they are still unsustainable and so fishing restrictions continue. Canada has listed the Atlantic cod as endangered and the World Wildlife Fund is working with governments to avoid a similar fate in other cod stocks.
We see huge piles of cod in Portuguese supermarkets, making me wonder how we can continue with such a high consumption because, despite popular belief, it seems there is not always more fish in the sea.
So now you know ...
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.