From Vikings to British warships via global exploration: the remarkable history of cod
Words: Mark Riddaway
It says much about the history of this unusual fish that the national dish of Portugal is bacalhau: salted cod. Portugal is thousands of miles from the Atlantic cod fisheries, yet a cold water fish from the frigid north is this temperate nation’s defining foodstuff. It’s the equivalent of deep fried camel being the national dish of Scotland.
In many ways, cod is the perfect fish: large, meaty, fertile, robust, unfussy in its diet and largely unbothered by predators—with one major exception: us. Most importantly for our story, it is the perfect fish for preserving.
Being almost entirely without fat, when dried or salted it can last for months, and the intensity and complexity of cured cod means that many cultures actually prefer it to the bland white flesh of its freshly caught equivalent.
A chewy, fishy lollipop
Viking mariners were probably the first to realise its rich potential. Gutted, cleaned and hung out to dry in the blistering winter winds of Scandinavia, cod could be turned into ‘stockfish’, a leathery but massively nutritious food that can be consumed like a chewy, fishy lollypop or else softened with water and cooked into soups and stews.
It’s no coincidence that the staggering progress of the Viking adventurers who made their way from Scandinavia via Iceland and Greenland to North America, a full half a century before Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World, followed fairly precisely the range of the Atlantic cod.
The Norsemen were keen on a spot of pillage, but they were also adept at more peaceful forms of exchange and their plentiful supply of stockfish provided a valuable asset for trading.
Honey, wine and clothes
Egil’s Saga, a great Icelandic work, tells of the hero Thorolf Kveldulfsson shipping stockfish to England in the 9th century in exchange for wheat, honey, wine and clothes, while recent studies of fish bones found in the UK have identified dried cod from the Norwegian Lofoten Islands dating from as early as 1000AD.
In the medieval period, the Catholic church’s elaborate dietary rules prevented its flock from eating meat on Fridays and saints’ days, meaning fish was in great demand. Dried Nordic cod became a genuine cash cow, attracting the interest of Europe’s burgeoning merchant class.
The market in stockfish, which centred upon Bergen in Norway, came to be dominated by the Hanseatic League, a powerful and mildly sinister confederation of German guilds and city authorities.
Dried and cured
To circumvent this monopoly, the English looked to Iceland. In 1412, the Icelandic annals reported “fishermen from England” arriving off the island’s south coast. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, these visitors acted as both merchants and fishermen, bringing much needed grain, salt and luxuries in exchange for stockfish, but also fishing for their own cod, which they dried and cured ashore.
Then, in May 1497, five years after Columbus first sailed to the Caribbean, the brilliant British explorer John Cabot (okay, so he was actually a Venetian called Zuan Caboto, but we’ve claimed him as our own) set off from Bristol to find new lands. A few weeks later he arrived at Newfoundland. Among the island’s charms was a staggering concentration of cod.
French, Portuguese and Basque fishermen were the first to fully exploit this silver-scaled treasure trove, and there’s even some suggestion that the Basques—renowned for their prowess as whalers—were there long before Cabot, but managed to keep it a secret. Both France and Portugal had ready supplies of salt, which they used to preserve their catch. And thus bacalhau was born.
The first record of English fishermen in Newfoundland comes from 1531. By the late 16th century, they had really started muscling in. Their speciality was a form of air-dried salt cod which required minimal salt (useful, because England didn’t have much) but lots of space on shore.
Merchants began leaving winter crews in Newfoundland to look after the facilities, a presence which evolved into a kind of de facto colonisation. A regular cycle soon developed: sail from Bristol or Plymouth to France or Portugal to buy salt, head out to sea for cod, cure it on Newfoundland, then sail back to Portugal to sell the fish and buy oil, wine and more salt to flog in England.
For a couple of centuries, the northwest Atlantic cod fisheries became part economic miracle, part mass brawl. As the European maritime nations and the nascent North American colonies all tussled with each other for control of the sea’s riches, cod became a magnet for armed conflict, piracy, shifting alliances and vibrant entrepreneurialism.
Vile slave economies
Preserved cod played a major role in fuelling the vile slave economies of the Caribbean, where salt fish remains one of the region’s defining foodstuffs. Fishermen and merchants in Massachusetts grew rich from supplying plantation owners, so when the British government attempted to impose heavy taxes, the American colonies reacted badly. The Grand Banks cod fisheries became an important battle ground in the American independence struggle that followed.
Fighting over cod would become a common and rather wearying part of our national story. Britain began its enduring love affair with fish and chips in the mid-19th century, and battered cod became both a national symbol and a source of spiralling demand. Any attempt by Johnny Foreigner to mess with our access to fish suppers resulted in populist outcry and calls to arms.
In April 1950, the Icelandic government, understandably chippy about foreign fishermen plundering its stocks, unilaterally extended its territorial waters to a distance of four miles from shore, rather than the internationally accepted three miles. The British mithered loudly. Eight years later, Iceland pushed the limits to 12 miles, and the British responded by turning up with a load of warships.
The resulting Cod Wars, which flared repeatedly until 1976, involved British trawlers trying to fish under Royal Navy protection while the Icelandic Coast Guard did everything it could to stop them. Boats were sunk, catches were lost, and shots were even fired, but miraculously no one died. The conflict ended after 200 mile territorial zones gained widespread international acceptance.
But that wasn’t the end of the politicisation of cod fishing. Rows over European Community quotas and the sanctity of territorial waters rumbled on. The Spanish became the next great enemy, regularly demonised in the British press for stealing “our fish”. But all this blood and thunder was just a cover for the real problem: the world had destroyed its cod stocks.
Cod fishing had sustained entire communities since the Vikings first hung their fish out to dry: Iceland’s entire economy relied upon cod (until insane financial speculation became the main national industry) as did numerous British, American and Canadian coastal towns, and these began to die as cod yields crashed. Reckless overfishing destroyed fish stocks, and it destroyed human lives.
Cod stocks remain low by historical standards, but things are not looking as bleak as they did a few years ago. The North Sea has seen its stock steadily rise, and several fisheries both close to home and further out in the Atlantic have been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)—you can rest assured that any cod you find at Borough Market has come from a sustainable source.
Cod remains the perfect fish, whether for fish and chips in Whitby or bacalhau com todos in Braga. Just be grateful it’s still with us.