Christmas Cod

Portugal is the second biggest consumer of fish in the world. At one point in the nineteen-sixties it was the greatest consumer—that was before the 1970’s cod wars, which pitted Iceland against the UK, in a fight which the English lost.

By 1980, when the third cod war was done and dusted, the UK’s cod catch was way down, and Iceland had overtaken Great Britain in terms of cod landings. Along the way, they became the nation that eats the most fish.

But the disputes between England and Iceland didn’t start in the XXth century—they were just the last of ten cod wars, or þorskastríð in Icelandic, that began in the fifteenth century, when the Portuguese were busy traveling the India road.

The decline of the Portuguese cod catch was due to several factors. In the early seventies, the new exclusive economic zones, or EEZ, were established—a two hundred nautical mile area around every maritime nation, with exclusive fishing rights.

The area around Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, the best cod fishery in the world, became part of the Canadian EEZ, and the cod moratorium was put in place to protect the stock.

In 1974, the Portuguese revolution completely changed the political landscape, and with it the fishing rights in the (now) ex-colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

In parallel, one of the great bulwarks of the fascist great leap forward, Salazar’s Campanha do Bacalhau—or Cod Campaign—was winding down.

From Belém to the Azores, then NW to Newfoundland, and then north to the Arctic. A journey repeated for forty years in search of cod.

From Belém to the Azores, then northwest to Newfoundland, and finally north to the Arctic. A journey repeated for forty years in search of cod.

In keeping with the dictator’s policy of ‘orgulhosamente sós’ (proudly alone), currently echoed by the populist-nationalist movements in Europe and North America, in the 1930’s Portugal decided to emancipate itself from cod imports.

To that end, various companies from the Aveiro and Oporto areas organized yearly runs to the Grand Banks, fishing cod over the summer months.

These campaigns, which departed Portugal in the spring and aimed to (but didn’t always) return before the North Atlantic hurricane season, had some interesting parallels with the XVth and XVIth century discoveries.

They were annual events, and since the majority of vessels were under sail—although many also had diesel engines—the calendar was set by the weather.

The fishermen on board were poor people, like the sailors on the ships of Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama—and although the death toll was significantly lower, every year ships were lost and men died.

The ships sailed in company, a throwback to the days when pirates roamed the Northeast Atlantic. Two thousand men crewed thirty schooners, and the fleet would gather at Belém, to the west of Lisbon.

Just as in Gama’s day, mass was celebrated, and the women and children gathered at the dockside to bid farewell to husbands and fathers.

Then it was the brisk nor’easter, sailing past the bar of the great estuary of the Tagus, and on to the Azores. From there, the fleet headed northwest to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and then, when summer broke the Arctic ice, due north to Greenland.

Throughout the last century, Arctic waters became warmer, and the cod moved north, followed by the Portuguese. By the 1950’s, much of the fishing took place off the west coast of Greenland, near the Arctic circle, in the area of the Davis Strait.

While the hook and line gear is out, fishermen used jiggers to bring up extra cod.

While the hook and line gear is out, usually for at least four hours, dorymen use jiggers to fish for extra cod.

The cod were fished by dorymen, using hook and line—a line would be set with six hundred or more hooks, baited with herring. Although the motherships were schooners, each carried a stack of dories, small rowing boats with no rudder or keel. Each fisherman took a dory and fished on his own—the best could catch a metric ton of cod a day.

Work began at four a.m., in the long days of the Arctic summer, and ended when the flag went up on the schooner to summon the little boats aboard. Atlantic gales would sometimes cut the day short, and blasts from the ship’s siren would call the dories in.

Often, sea fog would come down, completely blocking the view to the ship—it was then the doryman was at his loneliest. Dories had only a compass for taking bearings, a conch to blow a signal, and a pair of oars—dorymen could be lost for days, anchoring and waiting for the fog to lift, surviving in freezing conditions—raw cod for food, drinking water wrung from condensation on their caps.

Aboard the schooner, the cod were gutted and split, and livers sent to the pressure plant where cod liver oil was made. Kids of my generation have an enduring memory of being force-fed a tablespoon a day of the foul-tasting oil, in the interest of health and happiness.

A timeless image of bravery: alone in a dory, a Portuguese fisherman flies the cross of the caravels.

A timeless image of bravery: alone in a dory, a Portuguese fisherman flies the cross of the caravels in the Arctic waters.

The fish sides were salted and stored, and all the other bits kept—the tongues, the cheeks, everything that’s edible in a cod made its way home—it’s still perfectly normal today to see cod tongues or ‘caras’ (faces) on the menu in Lisbon restaurants.

A typical day for a doryman could be up to twenty hours long, with four hours’ sleep after midnight, before next morning’s 4 a.m. start. The campaign would only end when the hold was full—but when you salt cod it shrinks, and the brine that came out of the fish was pumped out twice daily. Just when you thought it was time to go home, space appeared in the hold for more cod.

For that reason, Portugal is the world’s number two consumer—if you estimate the fresh weight equivalent of that salted cod, which is the correct way of making the comparison with other nations, the little country on Europe’s western edge sails past South Korea and Malaysia—and adds an extra twenty pounds per year to each person’s intake.

And that’s exactly what you’d expect from a nation where salt cod is the festive dish on Christmas Eve.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.




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