I can’t remember exactly when I first tasted bacalao but I think I already had a three as the first digit of my age. I don’t really know what took me so long either. There weren’t too many other dishes that hadn’t somehow landed on a plate in front of me.
I think it had something to do with bacalao having this rep as a “peasant’s dish”, the “dish of the poor”. I didn’t want to eat what the poor ate. I wanted to eat what the rich ate. Even though I was poor. And yes, I guess, pretentious.
I think it also had something to do with that Spanish word, bacalao. It sounded like a board game. Or the cry some wild animal might make on a full moonlit night. No matter if you called it bacalhau in Portuguese. Or bacalla in Italian. Or worst of all, in English, the brutally boring salt cod. I couldn’t understand why would you take what was then the world’s most common fish and hit it with more shakers of salt than Jimmy Buffett had ever sung about.
Until I finally tasted it. And discovered the extraordinary concentration of taste.
When Jacques Cartier arrived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence and claimed Canada for the French, he reported that there were a thousand Basque boats fishing for cod (why the Basques didn’t land, claim Canada for themselves, and get their own chapter in my Grade 8 history book I can’t explain). With it taking about three, maybe four weeks to get that fish back across the ocean and without the inventions of boxes wearing nametags like Maytag, Amana and Frigidaire on them, the holds of those ships could start to smell like my laundry basket after three or four days of some serious workouts. So bacalao, a word that another explorer, John Cabot, said originated with native Newfoundlanders, was created.
With the help of a chemical that had recently become readily available that bore the names sal, sale, sel, solt or salt, the fishers of the sea placed the beheaded and eviscerated (a so much more exciting word than cleaned) fish on the decks, hanging them from trellises to dry and thus was born bacalao.
And thus, like corned beef, smoked salmon or confit de canard, we had another example of how the need for preservation was responsible for extraordinary cuisine.
My go-to San Miguel chef for bacalao has usually been the charming and talented (and yes, very beautiful) Maria Auxilio Trujillo but since Hotel El Mirador put out the “en venta” sign, we’ve, sorrowfully, lost touch.
So, with my now incurable bacalao habit, that gets especially itchy on Christmas Eve, I had to find a new dealer. I must admit it, I was lost. The only other bacalao chef I knew had moved to Queretaro. I was like an addict in withdrawal. I was so desperate I did an internet search.
I’d first noticed Corazón Colmillo when they were hustling an online How To Make Chiles en Nogado course. I liked their hustle. Good copy, good photography, good type selection…that will sway an old ad guy like me every time. And now I’d landed on their Facebook page and they were hawking a holiday delivery menu and there on the “entradas” section was Bacalao.
But how could I trust a chef who’d never prepared anything that had ever entered my mouth to cook my Christmas Eve dinner. December 24 is one of the most important nights of the year, one of the very few evenings that Don Day’s Wife allows me to venture into the over 300 peso section of our wine rack. Maybe Corazón Colmillo would let me take their bacalao for a test drive before it officially became available on December 20.
Off went an email and back came a response from Daniela Ahlenius, one half of the Corazón Colmillo partnership. They’d had other requests. Chef Andrés Jordan, the other half of Corazón Colmillo, would be cooking a batch of bacalao on Sunday. They’d deliver on Monday.
At 2:00 pm yesterday, the phone rang. It was Daniela from Corazón Colmillo. Not just Daniela but chef Andrés were on their way with the bacalao. I was excited. I went down to the street to watch for them.
I, of course, invited them in for a drink (they chose lemonade) and, as people tend to do, we tried not to bore each other too much with our life stories. Andrés impressed us with his tale about coming from a catering family in Celaya and having impressive stints in Alsace, France and at Gary Danko’s in San Francisco.
“I felt like I wanted to adopt them”, said Don Day’s Wife after they left (once again dashing my hopes for a golden retriever).
In Spain, there are two very popular bacalao dishes. One is bacalao al pil-pil with garlic, chiles and olive oil. The other is bacalao a la vizcaina, a stew where cod is combined with roast peppers and tomatoes. It was the first ever bacalao dish I ate, at a Toronto restaurant called Maison Basque.
I knew nothing about Corazón Colmillo’s bacalao dish other than it was from a “receta de mamá inigualable”. I wasn’t sure if that meant the recipe was incomparable or perhaps it was Andrés’ mother who was incomparable. I just wanted his bacalao to be a la vizcaina or as it’s also known on this side of the ocean bacalao a la mexicana.
I asked Chef Andrés what was in his mother’s recipe.
“Small potatoes.” Yes, they’re always in vizcaina I thought. “Tomatoes and peppers.” Yes, two more vizcaina ingredients. “And onion and garlic.” Yes and yes. “And two ingredients that not every cook puts into their bacalao, especially outside Mexico, capers and olives.” The most important ingredients I thought, outside of the cod. This sounded like my kind of bacalao.
Corazón Colmillo’s bacalao arrived in a vacuum-sealed bag. Not pretty. But practical. With it came a bag of pickles and three bolillos. The pickles include some banana peppers that are not for the feint of heart or anyone not born south of the Rio Grande. The bolillos were bigger and browner and better than any I’d ever eaten.
And the bacalao a la vizcaina? Rich in the taste of cod. Not overflowing with potatoes as a filler. Moist, very moist, with a juice that I wanted oceans of. With the right amount of olives and capers that blessed but never bullied. I scraped the plate and emailed Daniela with our Xmas Eve order.
“I wish me a merry Christmas. I wish me a merry Christmas.”
Corazón Colmillo has an extensive holiday menu with bacalao just one of many choices. You’ll find their Facebook site and all of the dishes at https://m.facebook.com/corazoncolmillo. Call 415 170 5384 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to order and, better hurry, December 20 is the latest date to do it.