As is so often the case here, we started the day with a fairly well defined plan and finished it in a completely different way. The original program involved the completion of a series of business tasks along with the extra work of getting ready to leave the country, mindfully ticking things off lists. But we went for a rambling bike ride instead, ending up in a funny little bar in the country to wait out a mid-morning rainstorm. While we were out there, we noticed a handwritten sign advertising baccalà and panzerotti fritti on offer that evening, so we made plans to come back later for dinner.
Fish on Friday is still very much a part of the culinary landscape here. Although the Vatican hasn’t required this sort of religious observance by the faithful since the Vatican II decrees were handed down in the ‘60s, religious tradition is woven tightly into the cultural fabric in southern Italy. On Fridays, the pescherie (fishmongers) are pumping with activity from first light, offering an array of perfectly fresh fish and crustaceans from the nearly Adriatic or the Mar Piccolo on the Ionian Sea. From anguilla (eel) to zigrino (kite fin shark), there’s something for everyone. For us, it was to be baccalà, the much-loved staple in this part of the world that actually comes from the cold northern waters of Norway in the north Atlantic Ocean.
Baccalà or salt cod has always been a mainstay of Italy’s cucina povera. It was salted, dried and stored all winter long, providing one of the few, reliable sources of protein in much of southern Europe. Meaty, substantial and, surprisingly, not particularly “fishy,” there are almost certainly more recipes for baccalà in Italy than any other kind of fish. And now fishmongers and small alimentari (grocery stores) typically sell it already soaked in water so that it can be taken home and prepared the same day. But baccalà fried in extra virgin olive oil is a special treat: crispy, salty puffs with pure white flesh inside. With chilled, local white wine or an icy cold beer on a late spring evening, it is a revelation—and deeply addictive, too.
So we placed our baccalà order and returned later for dinner to Bar Galante, a combination alimentare (small grocery store) and bar on the Via Ostuni road midway between Martina Franca and Ostuni near the sea. On Bar Galante’s patio under canvas umbrellas, we feasted on crackling morsels of fried baccalà, licking our fingers as we surveyed the scene. It turns out the Bar Galante, far from being a sleepy country store and espresso stop, is a hub of country life in the Valle d’Itria. Family representatives of all ages stopped to pick up takeaway fried baccalà carefully wrapped in paper for the trip home. Other groups assembled on the patio with us, swelling and shrinking as friends and relatives came and went throughout the evening. A few early summer people wandered in, too, most likely northern Italians with holiday homes they have just opened for the season.
But here’s the serendipitous part. One of our major tasks to complete before returning to the U.S. was weighing heavily. We have five acres of land desperately in need of a trim since spring rains and longer, sunny days have contributed to riotous grass growth everywhere. To ensure that our olive trees don’t have to compete for nutrition from the soil and to abate the risk of fire during the approaching dry season, we needed to get in touch with the elusive Vitantonio, a septuagenarian country neighbor with a tractor to confirm a date to get the job done. And sure enough, Vitantonio turned up last night at Bar Galante during our baccalà feast, delighted to help us out.
So much of our life here in Italy operates on this kind of chance encounter that we have come to understand is not really due to chance at all. Rather, business is conducted differently in southern Italy. New friends connect new acquaintances with lifelong friends and relatives, which happens during the course of daily life in the most natural kind of way. And if you want to get a hold of your plumber, don’t try calling the office. Find out where he takes his coffee in the morning and take care of business over an espresso and a cornetto (morning pastry).
Life is less linear and far more relational, a web of connections that can be mustered to address all of life’s exigencies. It’s no less effective than the straight-ahead, list-driven approach with which we’ve been raised. Slowing down enough to appreciate the process is the trick. So we’re learning how to ease into a new system that encourages happenstance while relying on an intricate network of relationships to take care of business. Sometimes over a plate of crispy baccalà.
Baccalà Fritta—Fried Salt Cod
2 lbs. dried salt cod, soaked (see instructions below)
2 Tbsp. flour
1 lemon, cut in wedges
2-3 cups extra virgin olive oil, for frying (Pascarosa Extra Virgin Olive Oil is great for this)
For the marinade:
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
3 Tbsp. Italian parsley, finely chopped
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
After soaking (see instructions below), dry the fillets and remove small bones that are visible or that you can feel with your hands. Cut the baccalà into approximately 2 1/2-inch squares and marinate in extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and just a bit of salt and pepper for an hour, mixing occasionally with your hands. Purists can skip the marinade step.
Bring the oil to 350˚F to 365˚F in a very deep saute pan. Dip the baccalà pieces one by one in the batter, coating each one well. Fry them in the pan, turning them once or twice if necessary, until golden.
When each piece is done, remove and place on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. Garnish with lemon wedges.
Serves 4 to 6
Plan ahead when cooking with baccalà. You’ll need a minimum of two days—three are better—to complete the soaking process. In Italy, baccalà is often presoaked in small grocery stores, but I haven’t found that to be the case in the U.S.
When choosing baccalà, look for pieces with flesh that are as close to white as possible, with light colored skin. If the flesh looks yellow, don’t buy it. If you find baccalà in whole pieces, try to buy a long, thick fish. If possible, it should be a bit more than one inch thick in the middle of the fillet. If it’s not already packed and wrapped in plastic and you’re allowed to smell it, remember that baccalà should smell like fish, if a bit intense. If it smells at all of chemicals or any other off odors, don’t buy it.
Prior to soaking, cut the baccalà into large pieces. You may need to do this first with hammer. Cutting the fish before soaking helps speed up the rehydration process.
At least two days prior to cooking (three days is best), begin soaking the salted baccalà in fresh water (at least 36-48 hours). First wash the pieces thoroughly, eliminating all the salt on the surface, and then completely submerge the baccalà in any container that will hold a lot of water;. Change the water at least three times a day (every eight hours or even more frequently). While soaking, keep the baccalà in a cool place; refrigeration is not necessary.
Just before cooking, you can peel off the skin if you like, but for fried baccalà, the skin can be especially flavorful so you can leave it if you like. Eliminate any bones—a pair of small pliers will be very helpful for this.
That’s it; you’re ready to proceed with the recipe.