Stockfish I – Thou wilt be beaten like a stockfish!

June 30, 2010

I guess it was inevitable, sooner or later I had to relate to the stockfish. Most evidence seem to point towards the possibility that stockfish were produced in Lofoten already during the viking age. Some analyses of fishbones found in York seem to indicate that cod from northern Scandinavia was imported already in the 10th century. (J.Barrett http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WH8-4PC4KVK-2&_user=10&_coverDate=04%2F30%2F2008&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1386995715&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=88f915493283b3b7e02b7418e4718298)

However, even though the dried cod may have an ancient background up here the cookingmethods may have changed considerably during the last ten centuries. Today the fish is generally soaked in water for seven or eight days. In order to keep the fish from going bad the water is needed to be kept at a low temperature ( <10º Celsius) Considering that a) there would perhaps be a problem to get hold of clean and cold water unless one lived by a spring or a mountain stream and b) methods of cooking are not set in stone and will change over time, I decided to look closer at older methods of rehydrating and cooking the stockfish.

In most medieval and renaissance sources the stockfish is closely connected with the act of beating it.

“I’ll turn my mercy out o’ doors, and make a stockfish of thee.”

(William Shakespeare, The Tempest )

Though the fish is still beaten in Lofoten – in order to get chewable flakes – the medieval sources seem to rather to referring to the beating as a method of softening it in order to be cooked. The first part of this experiment involved finding some sources that were a bit older than the traditions here at Lofoten. Though beating of stockfish is mentioned in the account given by Quirinus, it is not detailed enough to give us an idea on the way it should be cooked. A more detailed account could however be found in a French collection of recipes “Le ménagier de Paris” from the late 14th century.

Item, when this cod is caught at the edge of the sea and you want it to keep for ten or twelve years, you gut it, and take off its head, and dry it in the air and sun, and not with fire or smoke; and when this is done, it is called stockfish. And when it has been so kept and you want to eat it, you should beat it with a wooden mallet for a good hour, and then put it to soak in warm water for a good twelve hours or more, then cook and skim it well like beef; then eat with mustard or drenched in butter. And if anything is left in the evening, make it into tiny pieces like lint, fry and put powdered spices on it.

Le menagier de Paris, 1393

This recipe gave me a good, though somewhat dreaded, instruction on what to do. I had to beat the fish for an hour or more.

Before starting this project I had a simple wooden club made, the club was made of birch and was rounded at one side. As I was suspecting that the fish would flake considerably, I wrapped the whole stockfish in a piece of linen cloth – although it was just about a bit to small. Then I brought the fish to the cutting log, where upon I started to beat it with my wooden club. At first nothing seemed to happen and I realised that it would take well over an hour as I was constantly interrupted by tourists who were quite curious about both my activities and the stockfish. After a while, though the fish started to soften up and I was, despite the cunningly wrapped fish engulfed by a cloud of molecular sized dried fish. That said the fish did not really lose consistency and shape even though it started to flake somewhat. After about two hour of active beating, the fish was getting softer and I could bend it. It was broken at several places and the meat started to loosen from the skin.

As I deemed the fish ready to be soaked I placed it in a wooden vat with enough water to cover it – however a faulty memory made me use cold water instead of warm- and left it for the night.

Though the beating seemed to have been successful, I was reconsidering my method somewhat as I reflected upon the method I had used. In a 16th century English text a faulty interpretation of the name stockfish, may give us another clue to the way the fish was beaten. In a lexical text, the stockfish were supposed to have gotten its name from the stocks upon which it was beaten. This may however reflect that instead of placing the fish on the flat end of the log that I usually use for cutting wood, the fish should instead have been beaten over the rounded side of the log. This would perhaps provide a more efficient method.

One Response to “Stockfish I – Thou wilt be beaten like a stockfish!”

  1. Bacalhau – Portuguese word for this type of fish – is considered the national dish of Portugal. Still, checking a bit it appears here it was only introduced during the exploration times (late 15th century more or less).

    Funny enough most of the stockfish eaten here today is imported from Norway.

    Wish I had some better source in English but I guess http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacalhau will have to do for now.

    Quite a versatile thing to cook. They know how to do a heck of a lot more than the typical Swedish lutfisk we see wobbling around on the christmas table.

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