Like all good holidays in Portugal, Christmas is all about the food. So for this stop of the 2010 Virtual Advent Tour I’m going to tell you about that most beloved of fishes: Cod. Cod is for Portuguese what turkey is for Americans: our main Holiday meal and so valued it’s now part of our cultural identity. We even have a nickname for it: o fiel amigo (the faithful friend).

We’ve been in love with cod ever since discovering it off the coast of Newfoundland at the end of the XV century. Our boats found it far from our shores, so it need to be dried and salted to stand the trip back. This technique was also very useful during the Discovery period, when sailors needed food that could hold during the months at sea. And that’s how we still eat it today. It’s so salted that you must leave in water overnight before cooking it, with several changes of water in between. (Old joke: why is the sea salted? Because it has cod in it!)

Dried cod:

Shop in Lisbon selling dried cod:

Myth says there are 1001 ways to cook salted cod and if you get a group of Portuguese together, a good way to break the ice is to ask them their favorite way to eat cod. On Christmas, at our house, we always go for “Cod in the Oven”:

(aahhhh look at that!)

It’s very easy to make, just put slices of cod (previously watered), potatoes, garlic, tomato, red peppers and black olives in the oven. The surest way to get it right is to use a good olive oil – good olive oil and good cod are a match made in heaven. Take a look at this olive oil Christmas commercial. The brand is called Gallo, so they make the connection between their name and the Midnight Mass (in Portugal called Missa do Galo or Rooster’s Mass). It makes me all homesick every time I see it… a bit old fashion, a bit romanticized, but what can I say? I’m an emigrant.

Did you noticed the bread dipping into the olive oil on top of the cod at the end? Divine!

My family is not religious, but the Missa do Galo is an important Christmas tradition for many Portuguese. It’s celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve because legend says the rooster was the first one to witness and announce Baby Jesus’ birth. After the service people return home to open their presents and in many villages, a Yule log is burned at the church square after mass.

And to end, a quote from one of our most famous late-XIX century authors. He lived at a time when all things French were the fashion:

“My novels, deep down, are French, just like I am, in almost everything, French – except in a certain sincere vein of lyric sadness, which is a Portuguese trait, a depraved taste for fado music, and a well-deserved love of cod with onions!”

“Os meus romances, no fundo, são franceses, como eu sou, em quase tudo, um francês – excepto num certo fundo sincero de tristeza lírica que é uma característica portuguesa, num gosto depravado pelo fadinho, e no justo amor do bacalhau de cebolada!”
Eça de Queiroz

Feliz Natal para todos!