THE RISE AND FALL OF PORTUGAL ON THE BACK OF A FISH
The emergence of the western world and Portugal, its prominence and dominance can be directly attributed to a humble fish - cod.
Salt cod has been produced for at least 500 years, since the time of the European discoveries of the New World. Before refrigeration, there was a need to preserve the cod; drying and salting are ancient techniques. Portuguese fishermen were among the first to adopt the salt-based curing technique from Basque fishermen in Newfoundland near the cod-rich Grand Banks by the late 1400s.
Some of the earliest references to cod fishing come from 1303 wherein Afonso Martins (the representative of the fishermen from Bairrada) describes an agreement with the king of England to fish cod along the English shores. Later motivated by the discoveries of the spice trail and the development of navigation techniques meant they could abandon coastal navigation in favour of maritime discoveries, which led to crossing the oceans and resultant discoveries making Portugual one of the major world players of the day.
The Portuguese were already familiar with the lands of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia where they were the first to fish for cod. King Dom Afonso V arranged an agreement with King Christian I of Norway and Denmark enabling navigators to find a passage north east towards the Pacific Ocean, skirting the major ‘island’ of Newfoundland. In 1446, the voyage became a reality and the route of “Terra Nova dos Bacalhaus” (meaning: New Land of cod) was dominated by the Portuguese.
In 1504 colonies of fishermen originally from Viana do Minho and Aveiro were already well established in Newfoundland. By 1508, cod represented 10% of the fish sold in Portugal and continued to expand to the point that under the reign of Dom Manuel, a tithe was due on fishing from Newfoundland.
Under the reign of Dom Sebastião, the flourishing activity of the “Faina Maior” increased, leading to a “law for cod fishing fleets” whereby the fleets were reorganised under a unique command.
It all changed dramatically during the Spanish reign, the entire Portuguese fishing fleet were forced to become part of the “Invincible Army” that Filipe III wanted to use to defeat the English. The ensuing defeat of the Spanish Armada reduced the Portuguese fleet to a fraction of its earlier size.
Without any boats, the Portuguese only returned to the cod Great Banks of Newfoundland nearly two centuries later. By the 1700s, salted cod had become a staple food for both the ordinary and upper levels of Portuguese society. Significant Cod fishing only reappeared in the 20th century under the then current government, determined to strengthen distance fishing. With the advancements in freezing and transportation in the 1900s, salted cod from North America declined and Iceland and Norway became the major supplier of the salted fish to Portuguese markets.
During this time bacalhau was a cheap source of protein and frequently consumed. Thus, bacalhau became a staple of the Portuguese cuisine, nicknamed Fiel amigo (loyal friend). In fact, there is no word in Portuguese for fresh cod, instead it is called "fresh salt cod".
This dish is also popular in Portugal and other Roman Catholic countries. In Portugal, bacalhau is often sold as a generic product with no brand information. Customers are free to touch, smell, and otherwise personally inspect the fish, which is very different to how fresh seafood is often sold. Stores can carry a large variety of bacalhau differing in color, size, smell, taste, and dryness. Such variation has led Portugal to define requirements as to what products can carry the label "Bacalhau de Cura Tradicional Portuguesa".
On the southernmost roundabout near the centre of Fuzeta (approx. 2 hrs from Seville) is a bigger than lifesize statue of a figure in oilskins and a sou’wester, holding by the gills a very large cod. Erected in 2013 to commemorate the fishermen who joined the White Fleet to catch cod on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, although most of the Portuguese cod fishermen came from the areas around Aveiro, Figueira da Foz and Viana do Castelo.
It was not until the 19th century that Portugal resumed its interests in cod fishing, which continued until the 1960s there was an annual fleet of sailing ships from Lisbon which crossed the Atlantic to fish. Named the White Fleet due to the hulls of the ships being painted white.
The mode of fishing was by dory. The dory was a tiny one-man boat which set out each morning from the mother ship, each doryman fished cod by line. When his dory was full, or at the end of the day, he would return to the ship, offload the cod, and begin the process of gutting the fish, then be thrown into the hold for salting.
It was a very hard life, the working day could be as long as 20 hours and weather conditions erratic. Bunks were normally shared and the food was well distinctly fishy. The unhealthy close proximity was a breeding ground for TB, which was also a major problem in Portugal itself.
Some ships were steel hulled though the majority were wooden carrying up to 60 dories each. Many were acquired outside Portugal. The Portuguese owners subsequently removed engine and propeller, as it was cheaper to operate by sail power, particularly since the cost of labour in Portugal at that time was very low. There are pictures of these ships being towed back into harbour not because they are in trouble, simply because they did not have the power to enter harbour by themselves.
The mother ships stayed on the grand banks for about six months. They usually fished around Sable Island to the south of Newfoundland as the island offered some shelter from the hurricanes which assault that coast every August.
Men usually signed up for six-month stints at a time, some of their wage being forwarded to their families to cover living expenses during the man’s absence. Even so, both sides of these fractured families suffered deprivation.
Dorymen were paid by the number and weight of cod they caught, they retained the chin barbel of each fish as a means for counting their catch. The assessment of their catch was made by the mother ship’s officers, consequently there was ample room for cheating and ill-will.
The salted cod was transported back to Portugal, and on the return journey to the north, the ships carried Portuguese salt.
The White Fleet wound down to an end during the 1960s and 70s due to marine engines having been developed powerful enough to trawl the cod fisheries. There was no longer any place for the single-manned dory with its line-fishermen.
It remains an interesting fact that the Portuguese consume about 30% of the cod fished every year, but are responsible for taking only about 2% of the world’s catch. There is no doubting their love for salted cod in Portugal. Most Portuguese have been raised to appreciate salt cod as a delicacy, and retain that taste into adult life and often cod is an essential dish served for celebrations such as Christmas.
Trawlers, of course, disturb the sea-bed and take fish indiscriminately, and much of the by-catch is immediately discarded. This overfishing saw the collapse of the Canadian cod banks from 1992. Cod fisheries which had been exploited by man for over 500 years were overfished and ruined by man within 20 years.
In the 1990s, the supply of cod was at the point of extinction, due to overfishing by American, Canadian and Spanish trawling fleets leading to a ban on cod fishing in Newfoundland.
Portugal had maintained the traditional form of cod fishing using lines and Dory’s, and were not considered responsible for the extinction of the cod banks. More than 15 years later, cod fishing in this region is still not allowed, as the shoals have not regenerated sufficiently.
Now in Portugal, the cold northern European waters are the area where the cod has come back in force.
The Portuguese were the first nation to introduce cod so firmly into their gastronomy and culture. They had discovered this gift from the sea at the time of the great discoveries, when nutritional food that could be safely stored for long periods of time was needed to withstand the long journeys. They are the world’s largest consumers of this delicacy, affectionately calling it “fiel amigo” (faithful friend) for centuries.
A visit to Portugal would not be complete without sampling the nation's favourite dish. Small group tours depart September 2017 Ancient Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal and October 2017 Spain and Portugal in Castles and Palaces.