Ever wondered about the history of saltfish in the Caribbean and why Jamaican Products only offers dried salted cod fish from Norway? 

Origins

Fishermen on both sides of the Atlantic have been eating cod since the earliest times. Recent archaeological research reveals that:

  • it was an important part of the Native Americans’ diet; and
  • it was probably caught in Scandinavia’s coastal waters ‘from time in memorial’.

Although the drying of food is the world’s oldest known preservation method, the practice of preserving cod is much more recent.  The production of salted cod dates back at least 1000 years, to the time of the Vikings.

Saltfish – Dry Salted Cod Fish

Many countries, especially ones that share a coast with the Atlantic, have some culinary connection with salted cod.  Salted cod is called: saltfish in the Caribbean; baccalà in Italy; bacalao in Spain; morue in France; bacalhau in Portuguese; bakaliaro in Greece; and klippfisk in Scandinavian countries. 

To bring the Caribbean view to this blog, salted codfish will be referred to as saltfish. 

Drying / Storage

Traditionally, saltfish was dried only by the wind and the sun, hanging on wooden scaffolding or lying on clean cliffs or rocks near the seaside.  The Norwegian term klippfisk literally means ‘cliff-fish’. 

It is believed that the salting of cod began in the late eighth or early ninth century, when Viking shipbuilders began constructing the first craft with keels.  These early longships allowed the Vikings to roam further with the challenge of having to feed themselves during these longer journeys.  With no guarantee of catching cod on demand en route, they found preserving and having it in store resulted in a more reliable meal at sea.

Viking Ship

Salt has strong antibacterial properties which allows the fish to be stored for long periods of time, even at warm temperatures.

Salting became economically feasible during the 17th century, when cheap salt from southern Europe became available to the maritime nations of northern Europe.  The method was cheap and the work could be done by the fisherman or his family. The resulting product was easily transported to market, and saltfish became a staple item. 

After 1945 (World War ll), modern fish dryers were installed in many fish plants, replacing the traditional sun drying method.  Dryers have several advantages. They leave the fishermen free to spend more time fishing and less time tending the fish during the curing and drying process. The dryers also ensure a more uniform product and supply, free from the vagaries of the weather to which sun-dried fish is subject.  In addition, the introduction of refrigerators and freezers made it possible to store the saltfish for even longer while maintaining its quality. 

Other white fish such as pollock, hake, cusk, and haddock are offered salted and dried at a lower cost than saltfish (salted cod fish). Demand for these cheaper dried fish is now quite strong. 

Trade

Sugar transformed saltfish from a valuable commodity into an economic sensation.

Jamaica Sugar Plantation

By the late 17th century, much of the Caribbean agriculture was converted to sugar cane production.  Growing sugar cane on large plantations was labour-intensive. To keep costs down, plantation owners relied increasingly on slaves, brought over mainly from Africa.  Providing food for large number of slaves required large areas of land for planting crops and/or the rearing of animals.  Of course, plantation owners were unwilling to make such an investment.  Instead, their solution was to give the slaves saltfish.

Although saltfish was relatively easy to produce, the salting and drying process could go wrong in any one of a number of ways.  Europeans had become rather particular about the quality of their saltfish, so defective produce had previously been thrown away.  Needless to say, the plantation owners were not so picky.  Concerned only to feed their slaves cheaply, they would take whatever the New Englanders could supply, provided the price was right. This meant that the New Englanders could turn waste into profit, and a profitable new trade was born.  Before long, producers abandoned European markets to concentrate on making low-grade saltfish for the Caribbean. 

Triangular Trade Route

Soon saltfish became part of the triangular slave trade.  By the 1640s, New England ships would cross the Atlantic with saltfish and other products, buy slaves in the Cape Verde islands or West Africa, feed the slaves saltfish on journey to Caribbean, sell the slaves and saltfish in the Caribbean, then take cargo-loads of sugar, salt, spices and fibres back to New England.  By the early 18th century, saltfish was so central to the economy of New England that Boston Town Hall even had a golden cod hanging from its ceiling.  

Saltfish fed not only the Caribbean plantation slaves, but also the Union Army in the United States of America. 

The suspension of the Atlantic slave trade and the ultimate abolition of slavery brought an end to the triangular trade, but saltfish continued to flourish.  

Cuisine

Why would we eat saltfish when we can have fresh fish?  The answer, because of its flavour!

Saltfish Balls

When white fish is saturated with salt and dried, amino acids and other chemical changes occur in the fish.  This produces a chewier texture and milder, almost sweet, yet still fishy taste than its fresh counterpart.  It is not unlike how fresh pork can be transformed into ham. It is the same but different and both are wonderful. 

Saltfish remained popular not only in the Caribbean, with dishes such as ackee and saltfish in Jamaica and bacalaitos in Puerto Rico, but also in Scandinavia, Spain, Italy, south France and Portugal.  Saltfish is important in the diet of the populations of Catholic countries on ‘meatless’ Fridays and during Lent. 

Nutrition

Bet you did not know there are health benefits to saltfish! 

Saltfish (salted cod fish) offers the following nutritional and health benefits:

  1. Lowers blood pressure
  2. Sharpens memory
  3. Encourages healthier skin
  4. Lubricates joints
  5. Source of essential fatty acids
  6. Source of vitamins and minerals

Something to remember the next time you enjoy that meal with saltfish. 

Now you know the history of saltfish in the Caribbean.  So why does Jamaican Products only offer dried salted cod fish from Norway?  Norwegian saltfish is among the best on the market and we at Jamaican Products pride ourselves in offering customers the very best!!

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