»Why suffer?«, is not only a religious, or better a philosophical question that has been around since the ages of man, but it can also be asked in a regular, common home kitchen. Why, for instance, do you bother and stir and mix a gooey and slimy mixture of cod and oil by hand for over an hour, if you could also use a blender and mix everything together in just 5 minutes or less? What are the higher goals for us to reach that we endure all the physical and psychological pain of modern humanity, for which plowing with a hand-held plow, washing dirty pants in a cold river and gathering wood for a fire seem just like a very distant memory?
To make a spread of the Atlantic cod, also known as bakalar or polenovka here in Slovenia, the answer to this question is quite pragmatic. One of the essential components of the bakalar recipe is to keep the fibers in the fish meat intact, which give the spread a unique elegant structure and a perfect texture for easy spreading on bread. You don't have to resort to any of Nietzsche’s theories, that the human suffering is the guiding point to productivity and to the will to live; it suffices to put your finger on the blender which turns the soft fiber-filled cod meat into an undefinable mass of porridge-like substance without any character or elegance at all.
It is therefore not a coincidence that the Venetians as key holders of this very recipe named this spread baccala mantecato. Mantecato in Italian means to smash, stir, mix, a hand-motion of the sort in which we use our very muscles to work with. I can remember the face of my grandmother when she used to make whipped cream by hand, this act made her forehead glimmer with tiny balls of sweat. Her body was wrinkled-up and bent half-way over the bowl of cream on the kitchen table, her hands steadily whisking the mixture, her eyes sparkled like the eyes of a martyr, who bravely offers himself for the greater good. A torso worthy depicting of a master’s hand.
I guess that I very much have something of my dear grandmother Milena and I always work in the kitchen in the hardest way possible. But it’s not as much of martyrdom but a tantric way of prolonging the satisfaction I get from it. One hour of suffering will bless me with a delicious spread, the tired body will get a good portion of high-quality fibers and good fats (with just the right texture), the soul on the other hand will, when achieving and eating this masterpiece, soar high in the skies like a mighty falcon.
Of course there are shortcuts and believe me that you will want to cling on these with all might without any moral hesitations whatsoever. You know that there exist many American wonder-machines that can also easily whisk something up without any strains. These machines are mightier than the blender or a normal mixer, their whisks are sturdier than the normal hand-held ones and they will not break like mine did, when I mixed my half a kilogram heavy mixture with a normal whisk made out of weak wire.
But as in everything we do you can find that certain “something”, that certain surplus that needs to be made with sacrifices. In the balakar recipe that is using your own hands. It’s true that it will not be as perfectly mixed than with a machine, which means that the fibers will take in less fats and the spread will not be consistently mixed-in and silky-smooth, but the taste of the Atlantic cod will therefore be clearer and straightforward. The spread consists mostly of fish and not of sunflower seed oil, like most of the spreads bought in supermarkets.
Epicurus, the great antique pleasure seeker and the leading figure of hedonism mentions ataraxio, a state of deep ecstasy or inner peace as the climax of pleasure. The way to achieve this is not that long, not really complicated, a kind of short and whiny road, curved like a blood sausage - a bit of pickled cabbage and a glass of wine and we arrived at the destination. The Venetians would conjure their own menu for reaching nirvana and it would probably be something like this - white polenta fried on a bit of butter, bakalar, mixed and crushed by hand and a glass of dry sparkling wine of the grape sort prošek.
I myself rather tend to the Buddhists when it comes to this. But not that the stomach would be empty, I would just put a bit more vigilance (satori as they say) in the center of attention, rather than just the emphasis on feeding oneself. Suffering needs to be heard and found, the starting point of the uneasiness needs to be discovered with it. Food tends to suffocate the impulse of uneasiness, which is why the road to true awareness does not lead through hamburgers, truffles and not to say bakalars. Epicurus, I think you might have been wrong here.
Maybe we will get a bit closer to the answer we seek with repeated, meditative work, with the work of mixing and mashing that is ah-so-more than just physical exhaustion. Well enough talking, I am already soaking another round of cod fish, but I invite you to join me and discover the roots of suffering and pain with me.
BAKALAR, VENETIAN STYLE // BACCALA MANTECATO
A spread made out of Atlantic cod and olive oil Ingredients for 4 tormented souls
35 dag dried Atlantic cod
2 to 3 dcl not too strong olive oil (refined sunflower seed oil can also be used)
1 dcl liquid in which the cod fish has cooked in
1 spoon of black pepper grains
3 cloves of garlic
1 spoon of “solni cvet” (Fleu de sel or “flower of salt”) from Piran
A handful of parsley for decoration
First we make sure we have plenty of time to buy the cod fish. We are searching for air-dried Atlantic cod fish - Gadus morhua, which was caught in the North Atlantic oceans (marked FAO 27). The fish should weight at least half a kilogram and by chance be flattened, straightened by machines. If the fish body is still curved we will have to straighten it ourselves by beating on it with a wooden bat or the back side of an axe.
Then we soak the fish – we put the cod into a bigger pot or a tub and fill it with cold water. The fish is dehydrated that is why we can only soften the meat while soaking. Leave the fish to soak for 3 to 4 days, depending on how thick the fish meat is. The water needs to be changed daily, especially on the first day. The fish can also be ideally soaker under running water (but my wife forbids me this because we are too ecologically aware). The next day we cut into the tail area of the fish so that the meat spreads and soaks the inner side of the animal even better.
The soaked cod (gaining 3-times the weight than at the beginning) is cut into bigger pieces. For bakalar we use the parts of the fish that have the highest quality, which are the front side of the back and the stomach side with the longer fibers and a beautiful white texture of the meat.
The cod is placed into a pot and filled with cold water. Add a bit of salt and cook on a medium heat so long, till the water starts to boil. We remove the foams that gather on the surface, take the pot off the heat, cover it with a lid and leave it to rest for 20 minutes.
With a skimmer we move the cooked fish on a plate and wait till it cools off a bit, so much that you can hold it in your hands. We carefully remove the access skin, the spinal bone and all of the fishbones, bigger and smaller. The pieces of the cleaned meat are then put into a bigger bowl (the bowl should be in a round shape, because it is easier to mix the ingredients with a whisk).
We heat the olive oil and roast the garlic cloves in another pot till the garlic has a golden-brown color. After that we remove the oil from the stove and remove the garlic cloves.
We slowly pour the oil into the bowl with the fish meat and smash the meat with a hard whisk (it mustn’t be too soft). We mix and smash the mixture in a reparative pattern so the ingredients mix with each other in a homogeneous mixture. We also mix in some of the liquid that was left from the cooking of the fish at the beginning (the skin consists of a gelatin-like substance that melts in the boiling water). The liquid will, because of the gelatin, bind all the ingredients together even better. We repeat the process, mix and mash, add oil and add the liquid for about 30 minutes.
After this task we can rest a bit and prepare for another round of the same workout for another 15 minutes. The oil is added into the mixture for so long, till the fish starts to suck in the liquid. At the end the mixture is salted and peppered and mixed for additional 5 minutes, so the seasoning is spread evenly and we get a creamy spread without any bigger chunks of meat.
The spread can be served immediately, spread out on toasted bread or added into cooked and fried polenta. For decoration you can also add freshly chopped parsley on the bakalar-sandwiches. Dry wine with a distinct taste of sourness is an ideal companion, some bubbly Prosecco, Soave or a more Slovenian Malvazija can also be freely enjoyed with the dish, as long as the wines do not have a strong taste of oak wood.
The bakalar spread will hold up in the refrigerator up to 5 days.
I am a star-eyed observer; I watch the world unfold before me and I am amazed at everything I see. The human person is always my main focus, even when I chop up carrots or write down my recipes. I like to talk to people that work with their own hands and with the earths soil itself. At home I crouch down before my computer and type down every impression and every note form the last 5 years and I publish this at the very end in a book for everybody to read. Throughout this whole process I always stay a father, sometimes a little grumpy, other times cheerful and high in spirit.