Monday, December 21, 2009

Baccalà...A Christmas Treat

My grandmother used to buy it in stiff, salted sheets in the summer and she stored it in large baskets in the basement where it would await the holidays. It was the cheapest fish you could buy, but today it has become a refined delicacy. What a tradition! On December 22nd, grandma would start soaking the baccalà so that it would be ready to cook on Christmas Eve. She preparted the fish in a great big pot with a soupy sauce consisting of tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, black olives, parsely and peperoncino. This we would eat on Christmas Eve along with an abbondanza of at least 10 other varieties of fish including shrimp, frutti di mare, crabs, clams, mussels, scungelli and stuffed calamari. This tradition is still the way Christmas Eve is celebrated in many parts of Italy, but especially in the south.

In Tuscany, baccalà has become more popular over the years, but it wasn't always that way. Here in Tuscany, fish is comparatively unpopular, due to our inland geography. But the one fish that has stood the test of time is baccalà. In the old days, the only way to transport fish to Tuscany without spoiling it, was to salt it. That's why baccalà is just about the only fish that has taken on a tradition here in Tuscany. On Fridays, baccalà is eaten in Tuscany with beans or potatoes.

But all over Italy, baccalà is asscociated with Christmas Eve. As a kid, I did not care for baccalà because it had a tough texture and even after soaking it for days, it was still quite salty and dried out. Today while I was in the Sant'Ambrogio market, I wandered through the bancarelle (merchant stalls) to see what looked different and fresh. I started talking with one of the merchants, Umberto, who sells great salami, fresh eggs and crispy bread. He was the only merchant who was selling baccalà and he had enough to feed all of Florence. I remember as a kid there was only one kind of baccalà. But now there are four. Dried with the spine, dried without the spine, already soaked with the spine and already soaked without the spine. I couldn't understand why the baccala with the spine cost more than without the spine. Umberto explained that it's the same concept as Bistecca's better with the bone, and therefore it costs more! Theoretically it's a sharp pricing philosophy, but I won't pay more to find bones in my fish! So, I bought some bright white already soaked baccalà without the bone. I took it home and bought some parsely and made the best baccala that I ever had. I am surprised that this fish is not more popular. Here's what it looked like when it was ready to eat! Some crispy Tuscan bread, a little Christmas music, and I was in heaven.