The Old Man and the Sea

A few days before Christmas 2014, I wrote an article about cod—the dried product known as stockfisch, and particularly klippfisch, which is dried and salted. It is this fish, a staple of poor people’s diet in the Middle Ages, that the Portuguese call bacalhau.

You find bacalhau dishes throughout Southern Europe, readily identified in Spain as bacalao, and in Italy as baccalá—one of my favourite recipes for cod is the Venetian mantecato.

These days, despite the fact that global warming is fake news, the access to the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean has provoked a huge run on cod—the Barents is now severely overfished, and the ice melt is very bad news for Arctic cod, and with it for seals and polar bears.

Cod from Iceland on display in downtown Lisbon. Bacalhau hasn’t been fished by the Portuguese for decades.

But after the Second World War, the mother lode was the North Atlantic, the waters of Greenland and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Ships from all over Europe came to fish cod—from Soviet to Spanish vessels, but only one nation caught the cod with hook and line.

Portugal was deep in the grip of Salazar’s fascist regime—a country where life was good for the wealthy. If you had money and didn’t worry about politics, you were onto a good thing.

“Cerejeira blessed the ships,” the old man told me. “You couldn’t talk about it, but they said he got a ‘quintal’ from the catch on every ship.”

The quintal is a medieval unit of weight—in the US and UK, its equivalent is the hundredweight (cwt), but that leads us into short tons and imperial units. The quintal used on the cod vessels was the metric variety—one hundred kilograms, or two-hundred twenty pounds.

I wanted to tell the old man a joke about Cerejeira, the cardinal of Lisbon—dictatorships always produce jokes. During the Stalinist period, political prisoners joked that the Lubyanka prison was the tallest building in Moscow, since you could see Siberia from the basement cells.

In my father’s joke, Salazar ends up in hell, and the devil has made it particularly noxious by immersing all the tenants in shit—only their noses appear above the ordure. Salazar, however, is only waist-high. When asked for his secret, he raises a  finger to his lips and whispers: “ssshhh—the cardinal is giving me a piggy-back.”

We’re eating chocos in a little restaurant south of the Tagus—it reminds me of the cuttlefish on the grill in The India Road. There is a quick dalliance with wine colors, and we immediately conclude that tinto is required. A bottle from Palmela, called Dona Ermelinda arrives—you wouldn’t easily find it outside the country.

The fisherman is short and broad. His eyes are bloodshot below the pupils, but that doesn’t take away the easy twinkle. Much of what he says is directed at his twenty-two-year-old grandson, although it’s also meant for me—the old man spent the morning collecting his thoughts, wondering who was this strange fellow who wanted to meet him, to hear tales of sixty years ago.

“My ship was the Elizabeth,” he said. “I started in 1957, to get out of military service, after two years in the Escola de Pesca.”

Unloading cod from the dories to the mother ship in Newfoundland.

The fisherman sipped his red wine. “Lots of guys did that. We had men from all over Portugal. Fishermen from the Algarve, guys from the North, Ílhavo, Caxinas…” He went through the names of the main fishing villages.

Sometimes, we drifted away from his narrative. I told him about the cod wars between Britain and Iceland, and why I thought all the statistics about how much fish is eaten in Portugal are just plain wrong.

But very soon, his eyes would re-focus. “As I was telling you,” he said, “we stopped for bait in St. John’s. Mackerel. Herring. And capelin, they loved capelin.”

It was all as I’d read, but this time I got the inside story. The crew, seventy or eighty men, would be up at daybreak to get into the one-man dories. “My wife made the sail. Waxed it, so it wouldn’t rot.” At his side, the old lady nodded. She didn’t say much, just ate her  cuttlefish strips and picked at the french fries—the restaurant was old school, and a half-portion would have done three Dutchmen for lunch.

The Grand Banks are famous for fog, the kiss between the cold Labrador current and the warm Gulf Stream to its south. The dories are put in the water just after dawn, and the men collect their bait to take aboard—frozen blocks of capelin or mackerel.

The hooks are baited, long lines go down thirty fathoms or more. The lines will be down for an hour, and the fishermen are jigging, catching cod while they wait. Up comes the line—it’s a good haul.

The fog comes down. The Elizabeth sounds its horn almost constantly so the dorymen won’t get lost. Slowly they come in, armed only with a small compass and a whistle.

The men fish until sunset. The fish are offloaded, and it’s time for a petisco—a snack, aka supper. The staple food is dried meat from Argentina. The old man wrinkles his face ever so slightly—clearly the cuttlefish are a good deal better. Out on the estuary the tide is pushing in—the banks lightly dusted with seaweed are no longer visible.

“Then, it’s back to work, processing the fish.” Another sip of wine. Gutting, removing and storing tongues and faces, which are considered delicacies, even to this day. The livers go into a boiler at the prow, for cod liver oil.

Some sailors take it, my new friend does not. One quintal of fish reduces to sixty kilos as the fish loses water. As soon as a barrel is emptied, it’s used to store fish. Water is scarce, as on any ship—this isn’t so different from life on the caravels, and in some ways it’s worse.

Every night, the men get a mug of water to wash with. They use the precious liquid first to wash the face, then they salvage it for their hands. Most everything else is washed in seawater.

Work stops at midnight, if you’re lucky. Four hours sleep, and you’re back on the water. March through August. If you’re on watch, you don’t sleep at all.

Many men chose different paths to escape the draft—some jumped the border to work construction in France, some fished for cod. The video above hammers the message ‘Angola é nossa’—Angola is ours, a mantra from Salazar’s day extolling the African wars.

The risk of death is always present—rowing or sailing a small boat laden with cod back to mother is no mean feat. The cod are stored anywhere and everywhere, and the water laps at the gunwales.

One freak wave and you’re gone. Sometimes the line hooks a halibut—the alabote weighs a hundred and fifty pounds or more. At home, it’s unknown, but in Northern Europe it’s a delicacy. The captain keeps them, they’re not part of the men’s catch—the old man is uncertain where they end up, but he knows one thing: to land an alabote, the doryman must use his weight to tilt the boat, first toward the fish, and then right over to tip it into the boat—it’s a dangerous game.

In 1957, the season lasts from March to August—some years before, it lasted well past September. Each man gets fifty liters of wine, his quota for the period. That’s about three gallons a month—I anxiously reach for my glass of tinto.

It’s getting late, and the bottle’s gone. “Two thousand quintais, that would be a regular haul,” he says. I agree—two hundred metric tons of cod sounds respectable to me, especially since the crew will have caught about three hundred to make that number.

My new friend fights me for the check, and we solve it the old fashioned way. “You can pay next time.”

I watch the old man walk away, upright, barrel-chested, a living hero. As we part, I ask about the others. “It was a tough life,” he says softly. “There’s no one left.” He shrugs. “They’re all dead.”

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: