“ Address: Rua Cândido Reis 92-94 | Arruda dos Vinhos, Arruda dos Vinhos 2630-216, Portugal „
~Oh Cod our help in ages past~
One of the biggest mysteries about Portugal is the national passion for bacalhau or dried salt cod. You could understand it if the country was a long way from the sea and the only way to get fish was to buy it from a long way away and preserve it with salt and drying, but Portugal is not a long way from the sea - it's surrounded by it. All year round the nation's fishermen are out on the water bringing back fresh fish for a country whose per capita fish consumption is the highest in Europe and in the top four worldwide. With so much good fresh fish, it's a bit of a mystery that Portuguese are so attached to dried fish. I did wonder if it was a throwback to the days when Portuguese sailors went off to discover the new world. Maybe dried cod was a way to ensure they had food on long journeys - but that's a daft idea. If you wanted fish in the middle of a long journey, you'd only need to throw a line over the side. Apparently, the secret is that cod is mostly fished in the north Atlantic and salting was the technique used in the days before boats had refrigeration.
On my recent visit to Portugal, I was taken round most of the supermarkets by our sales director. We were there to look at the bakery sections in the stores and I was baffled to find that even in quite small supermarkets, a much larger area of the store was given over to bacalhau than to the entire bakery section. I don't think I've ever seen a Portuguese menu that doesn't have bacalhau dishes and it's said that this is the type of fish that's most eaten in Portugal. The trouble is, unless you're Portuguese or Spanish, it's really quite hard to understand the fascination with this unpleasant, smelly ingredient.
~Salt of the Earth~
If it's cooked well, bacalhau shouldn't taste salty. You should barely be aware that the fish didn't hop out of the sea the day before. If it's cooked badly, you'd better order a lot of drinks and put the salt cellar to one side. If the salt's not well flushed out of the fish it can be mouth puckeringly salty - and I say that as someone who loves to put salt on their food.
We were travelling back to the office after running round a bunch of different supermarkets in the Lisbon area in the morning and our driver, Josep, decided to take us to a nice little restaurant he knows. My other colleagues all thought they knew where we were going and seemed almost relieved when it turned out that our intended restaurant was closed for the summer holidays. Both asked him immediately if we could go to 'O Fuso' instead, and with general agreement, they phoned ahead to book a table. It was clear to me that in the eyes of my Portuguese and Spanish colleagues, this restaurant was really something very special.
~The cult of the Cod~
We drove to the small town of Arruda dos Vinhos to the north of Lisbon and parked up in the square. O Fuso is a big restaurant and is located in an old olive oil mill, a building with a high ceiling and various oil mill artefacts. Near the entrance is a fridge containing enormous steaks and a scorching hot barbecue with a fridge of cod sitting next to it. We passed these and entered the enormous dining area, filled with small tables lined up and close to each other. I would estimate that when full it could seat several hundred diners. I didn't see a menu and I'm not sure if there is one. This is the type of place where everyone knows what to expect and what they want and most likely it's going to be bacalhau.
Some discussion with the waiter took place and plates of food started to arrive. The first plate was cheese in little plastic pots. Apparently this is fresh cheese that's not been dried or matured and still contains a lot of water. It tastes of very little and has a texture a bit like compressed cottage cheese or Indian paneer. Two plates of bread - one fresh, the other toasted and buttered appeared next followed by a plate of air dried ham. The final dishes to arrive were a small dish of not very nice green olives and a plate of pieces of spicy sausage. I don't eat meat so I skipped most of what was on offer.
We drank red wine from a jug and water from a bottle which seemed to be somehow the wrong way round. I tend to get very thirsty so I had to take care to not drink much wine and to ask for a second bottle of water.
Our main course was a giant slab of salt cod from the grill. It was about two feet long and about a foot wide. As the guest I was offered the first pick of the fish which was a bit intimidating. How much do you take and is there a best bit that a polite person should avoid taking? I have no idea. I took quite a small portion - about half or one third as much as the others. It was a good decision because I really struggled to get through even that piece. Even though the bacalhau is soaked for a long time in water or milk to remove the salt and to rehydrate the fish, it isn't always completely de-salted. I can manage bacalhau when it's an ingredient in a dish but a large slab of the stuff is a bit too much for me to deal with. The waiter brought a big dish of large boiled potatoes and a smaller dish of beans and I used my vegetables to try to disguise that I wasn't eating much of the fish. My colleagues all went back for more whilst I ate slowly and listened to them chatting about how wonderful it was. I can only conclude that you really do need to grow up with bacalhau in order to develop a proper passion for it.
I think they could tell that it wasn't really my kind of thing. I didn't lie when they asked if I liked it - I merely told them that I think it's very difficult for anyone who isn't Portuguese or Spanish - especially one brought up in the land of 'cod and chips' to really fully appreciate a good piece of bacalhau. You should definitely TRY bacalhau, but unless you develop a real taste for the stuff, I wouldn't recommend driving out to Arruda dos Vinhos just to try particularly fine bacalhau. If you're anything like me, it may well be wasted on you.
Rua Candido Reis 92-94
Arruda dos Vinhos