Cod Almighty!

For centuries cod was the staple food of many countries in northern Europe. Since the sixteenth century it has been fished and marketed in virtually the whole northern hemisphere. It spelt wealth for the Basques and the Portuguese and, by no means coincidentally, has become part of the European gastronomic tradition in a myriad of different recipes. Every Italian region, for example, boasts traditional cod-based recipes that combine to form a cornerstone of the country’s culinary culture.

I can’t conceal a certain preoccupation about the cod stocks in northern seas, the principal fishing grounds for centuries, and the only place where it was possible to find true cod, Gadus Morhua which I used to eat religiously every Friday as a kid, and which we also know as stoccafisso, stockfish, or baccalà, depending on whether it’s a dried or salted. I use the scientific name advisedly here because the majority of the fish we still buy eat as cod isn’t cod at all! It actually belongs to other species with flesh of similar texture, fished in Argentina, South Africa and other parts of the southern hemisphere.

The fact is that the cod stocks I speak of either don’t exist at all any more or are so depleted as to be unable to guarantee the prosperous economies of the past.

The future looks catastrophic for the countries of Scandinavia and, above all, for Canada. It was in icy Newfoundland that the the codfish saga first began. There pre-Colombian Basque settlements have been found that demonstrate just how ancient cod fishing in those areas is. In 1992, a fishing moratorium was put in place to save the savable. Of the incredibly rich stocks that fuelled fishing for six centuries, only a few have remained, and the fish population has still failed to revive even following the ban. Things were clearly allowed to go far too far in the past.

Here we have yet another case of over-exploitation of resources. The fish was so abundant as to appeared infinite. Hence the fine notion of industrializing the system with ultramodern motor trawlers fitted with refrigerated chambers. As a result, in the space of just a few years, the codfish has virtually vanished from the Newfoundland area. Bad political decisions, greed, unfair competition, infallible fishing techniques – the upshot is that in Newfoundland they haven’t just lost the codfish; they’ve also lost all induced activity with tens of thousands of people now out of work and towns and villages literally abandoned. Not that they seemed to have learnt from the lesson. I’ve just heard, in fact, that crabs and prawns are also about to came to the same sticky end in those parts due to the same sorry reasons …

First published in La Stampa on 06-07-2002

Carlo Petrini

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