A Great-Grandfather's Recipe for Basque Salt Cod
To try the Spanish salt cod recipe that Alvaro's family has been making for generations, click here, or click here to view a slide show of the dish being prepared.
The village has four houses, one of which is abandoned. Alvaro bought his, an old stone barn that he is slowly fixing up, a little over a year ago when he moved back to Alava to take care of his ailing father. You can tell he's a little uncomfortable with having a house: his habits are more nomadic, and the rough-shod RV parked in front is a more comfortable fit. He has lived and worked in Asia, North Africa, and all over Latin America, running educational and cultural projects or just hanging out. But now he's back in Alava, an inland strip of the Basque Country abutting the Ebro River. He grew up in this region, and generations of his family have lived here: being back has prompted a rediscovery of local and family history.
"I usually cook Indian food, or Moroccan ... really different from the things my mother makes," he says. "If I were cooking just for myself I would already have the cumin out. But since you asked, I thought it would be better to make a family recipe, so I asked my mom. This recipe is from my great-grandfather, Florencio. It's really two different recipes: bacalao al pil-pil, which is very typical around here, but then what Florencio did was add a tomato sauce, like in bacalao a la vizcaina. So it's sort of a mix of both."
Bacalao, or codfish, is a mainstay all over the Iberian peninsula, but perhaps nowhere so much as in the Basque country. It is traditionally sold as dried, salted fillets and then soaked in cold water—changing the water several times—for a couple of days until fully desalted and rehydrated. Alvaro has opted to buy it already desalted from the supermarket. His little dog, Gacha, leaps with enthusiasm as the cod is unwrapped.
Slicing mounds of garlic, Alvaro tells us that this dish is best made the day before so that the flavors have time to blend. "They say Florencio would prepare bacalao—and there were some 15 or 20 people living in the house, plus whatever guests were passing through, so that's a lot of bacalao—as a special occasion. He would prepare it the night before with much to-do, so that in the morning everyone would be looking forward to bacalao for lunch. But on a few occasions when it was time for lunch the bacalao was gone! Florencio would claim that someone had come in the night—maybe a guy from the village who came to buy a chicken—and had taken it, but everyone knew that he had woken up at four in the morning, sat down with a jug of wine and eaten all of it himself."
Florencio, it seems, is a legendary figure, a patriarch larger than life. Literally and figuratively: as well as being a powerful and charismatic figure, he was also enormously obese. He and his wife, Celestina, had lots of children, and the whole tribe of grandchildren and great-grandchildren now get together every couple of years for reunions. Many of them still live in the region. Others have scattered to other parts of Spain and the world.
Once the chopping is finished—two heads of garlic, three yellow onions, a bunch of parsley—Alvaro fires up the stove. In one large pan he pours some olive oil and adds the onions, leaving them to cook over a low flame. Into another he pours a large jar of tomato conserves made by his grandmother from her garden. It includes tomato, green pepper, and onion, and is the basis of many regional recipes. This is the last remaining jar of the past year's crop, and it retains the sharp bright smell of summer, striking on this damp spring day. It simmers slowly while Alvaro continues.
"Florencio was a smart guy. In those days you started working young, and by 16 he already knew the ropes. He managed cattle; the family had some land, not a lot, in a village near Vitoria. But then he fell in love with a girl from a very poor family from a village up in the mountains. His folks didn't accept the marriage, so at 22 he picked up and left his family and their land and everything and went to Miranda. Why? Because Miranda had an important cattle market, the train passed through there, and it was much more developed than Vitoria. He made some money trading cattle, and what he made he invested in land. The people that worked for him lived in the house with the family, so over time it became a huge extended family." Alvaro is covering the filets of bacalao with flour and checking the onions as he speaks. Satisfied that everything is under control, he lights a cigarette and leans against the rough stone wall.
"The people that worked for them weren't serfs: the North is different that way, its not like Andalusia which had huge land-owners and then landless peasants. This was a different dynamic. For example, one of the men who worked there, who became a great friend of Florencio's and whose son was like a brother to my grandfather, he originally went to Florencio's house to take refuge right after the war." (Here when people talk about 'the war' they always mean the Spanish Civil War.) "I don't know how he ended up there, through friends of friends or something, but he had been denounced as a Red in his village and when Franco's army came through, he had to leave or he would have been killed. So he went to Miranda where no one knew him, and he ended up staying 10 years."
The onions are now perfectly tender and transparent, and Alvaro delicately places the floured filets of bacalao into the pan, skin side down. Moving the pan back and forth, he settles them in amongst the onions and covers the pan. The trick to pil-pil, he says, is to move the pan a lot, shaking it back and forth, so the bacalao doesn't stick. The flame should be low so the fish slowly releases its juices, which thicken into a rich sauce. He adds a little water to the simmering tomatoes and begins slicing open two dried choricero peppers, shaking out the seeds.
"In the Basque Country these peppers are only used in the southernmost part, the part near the Rioja. In Bilbao, for example, you don't see them at all. But in the Rioja they use it in everything. And in Miranda you see a little of everything, because people went there from all over the place to work in the factories and kept their family recipes."
Perched on the Ebro River, Miranda has all the characteristics of a border town. Although it belongs to the province of Burgos, the Castilian heartland, politically and culturally it leans more towards Alava and the nearby Basque capital, Vitoria. Alvaro's family characterizes this border area, with its back-and-forth between Miranda and Vitoria, its sense of Basque identity and Castilian language, its mixed political orientation. For Alvaro, neither Basque nor Castilian identities fit particularly well: he prefers to say he's from the Ebro valley, stretching from Navarre, through the Rioja and into Alava. "Its outside official borders," he says, but "there's definitely a common culture of the Ebro."
The cod is now almost cooked. Alvaro takes the lid off and piles on the garlic, peppers, and parsley, continuing to move the pan. He covers it again to let these last ingredients wilt into the sauce. It looks beautiful. If we took the cod off the stove now and let it sit for a little while, absorbing its liquids, this would be a classic bacalao al pil-pil. But we are going for Florencio's hybrid version, so Alvaro pours the tomato sauce over the bacalao, and continues to cook it on a low flame for a few more minutes, moving the pan occasionally.
While the fish rests we set the long wooden table with local bread and a simple green salad. This is mostly a work table, and we have to clear it of toolboxes and a chainsaw to make room for lunch. We throw another log into the wood stove, which provides a halo of heat in this cavernous barn, and while we enjoy the meaty fish and rich, earthy flavors, Alvaro enthusiastically describes how he imagines big meals with many guests at this long table someday, when the renovation is done, when he has fully settled into this place.
Recent stories by Maggie Schmitt:
How Spain Eats at Home: A Lesson in Real Paella
The Vinegared Dish Found 'Round the World
A Persian New Year Feast, From Herbs to Eggs