There are different versions of how the inhabitants of Vicenza, the vicentini, came to love baccalà.
Some say that this recipe from Vicenza was already greatly appreciated back in the 13th century. There is a story that tells of how the Veronese opened the gates of the castle of Montebello in a battle against Vicenza when the latter called out that they were carrying polenta and baccalà.
The most accredited version of the recipe's origin, however, dates back to the middle of the 15th century, when an expedition led by the Venetian Querini was shipwrecked on Rost, an isolated island way off the coast of Norway. The unfortunate event however resulted in a few specimens of stockfish, dried cod, being brought back to the Italian shores, and it was the beginning of a neverending love story. It is undeniable that dried fish was a great solution both for seafaring people all over the world and those they left at home. Preserving food was not as simple as it is today and stockfish became the perfect substitute for fresh fish, then extremely expensive and easily perishable. The people of Vicenza found many a way to cook this fish, but it seems that a well-loved woman, familiarly called siora Vitoria, the owner of a trattoria came up with this simple, yet very tasty way, of making baccalà at the end of the 19th century: the recipe now known all over Italy as baccalà alla Vicentina.
A few notes:
For those of you who may not be familiar with the difference, stockfish is dried cod while salt cod is made by preserving the same fish in salt. The different ways of preserving the fish are a direct consequence of the seasons. Cod is fished in the northern waters surrounding the coasts of countries like Scandinavia, Canada and Iceland. When the fish was caught in the winter months it was set out to dry in the cold sea air on rocks or wooden racks. In the warmer months, when this was not an option, the fish was cleaned directly on the boats and preserved in layers of salt in barrels. Once the fish is soaked for several days in fresh water, the result is quite similar.
In Italian cod is called merluzzo and the two variations are respectively called stoccafisso and baccalà. The people of Vicenza traditionally use stoccafisso in this recipe although they call it bacalà. They are neither ignorant nor confused, they simply call stockfish bacalà with one "c" and salt cod baccalà with two "c"s. So the truly correct name of the recipe is bacalà alla vicentina, although my post is called baccalà alla vicentina because I used salted cod instead of stockfish to make it (and I made boiled potatoes to go with it instead of polenta, because my daughter came down with the stomach flu and I couldn't hop over to the supermarket as I had been planning).
I know, if you are from Vicenza you are probably sniffing with disapproval if you haven't already skipped over to a more authentic recipe. But hey, I couldn't find any stockfish around and I certainly am not the first nor will I be the last to do this judging from the internet.
This dish only requires very few, but good quality products. What it does need, however, is a lot of time and planning ahead. You will have to calculate anywhere between 24 and 72 hours of soaking to rehydrate/get rid of salt, depending on which kind of cod you are using. And then you need to simmer the fish on a very low flame for approximately 4 hours (some say a couple is enough, others swear you need up to ten hours). As so many other traditional recipes, there are as many variations as there are families in Vicenza, so you sorta have to find a happy medium.
1 large /2 small onions
ca. 1 cup/2 dl milk
400gr stockfish/salted cod
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup or more of grated Grana Padano (or Parmesan cheese)
flour for coating
a large handful of parsley, chopped
The first step is to soak the fish in cold water for a couple of days (from 24 to 72 hours), changing it a few times a day (about every six hours) to rehydrate the flesh and get rid of the salt if you are using salted cod. The time this will take depends on the size of the fish. Halfway through this process, when it started getting softer, I cut the fish into pieces. When you are ready to cook it, take the skin off.
Heat some olive oil in a heavy-based casserole with lid. Peel and chop the onions and sauté, then add the anchovies and stir until they fall apart, making sure you don't burn them.
While they are cooking, dry off the cod and dredge with flour, shaking off the excess. Take out some of the onion mix, place the pieces of fish in the casserole and cover them with the onions you set aside. Pour in the milk, sprinkle with grated cheese, season with salt and pepper, drizzle over some more olive oil and cover. Cook on very low heat for about 4 hours, shaking the casserole every now and then so the fish doesn't stick to the bottom, but never actually touching the filets.
While you wait you can start making the polenta to eat with the baccalà. When the fish is tender, you can either break it up with a fork (which is what I did to make sure the kids wouldn't get any bones in their servings) or you can serve the pieces whole. Serve with polenta (or boiled or mashed potatoes) and the sauce. Enjoy!
P.S. After I realized it was not uploading pictures anymore, I finally fixed the Pin it button.