The traditional Bacalhau industry in Kristiansund

Av Odd W. Williamsen

The traditional Bacalhau industry in Kristiansund
Tørking av klippfisk på bergan i Kristiansund. Foto: Anders Beer Wilse

What is bacalhau?

Bacalhau[1] («clipfish») is salt matured, dried cod.

The invention of bacalhau dates back to the 14th century, among people in Portugal and the Basque territories. The process was later perfected in New Foundland by European traders. From the latter half of the 17th century the state of Denmark-Norway welcomed new industries with generous privileges, such as tax exemptions, which made setting up shop on the Norwegian coast especially profitable. The harbor of Lillefosen, later Kristiansund, was chosen due to its advantageous location and climate. With vast rockfaces for drying, a mild and windy spring and easy access by ship, it was the perfect spot.

It has been produced on an industrial scale in Norway since the early 1700s and cater mainly to an Iberian clientele, especially the Portuguese, both in Europe and later in Brazil. The production itself is very labour intensive, requiring a large number of seasonal workers to perform the many repetitive operations done each day for months on end. When the fish arrived at the place of production it would be washed and then salted and layered in stacks to mature. Once this process was done the fish would be washed again and then dried in open air, laid flat on the cliffs by the sea. In the morning the fish was laid out for drying, and each night it was stacked and covered, to avoid getting damp. This process would be repeated for weeks. The heavy work, the washing, drying and stacking would mainly be done by women, often accompanied by children, at 1/3 of the wages made by men. The fishermen, “wreckers” (quality controllers) and employees inside the factories were traditionally men.

The originally major markets for bacalhau from Norway were the ports around the Bay of Biscay stretching from Bordeaux to Santander and La Coruña. Eastern Spain with Barcelona was also a major market. Kristiansund’s population grew as the export trade expanded. In 1801 there were 1200 people living in the town, 80 years later the population had grown to 12 000. This period of almost uninterrupted growth in the 19th century is often called the “Golden Age” of both the Norwegian bacalhau trade and of the city of Kristiansund. By the end of this period, around 1880, Kristiansund was for some years the third biggest export port in Norway, after Christiania and Bergen, measured in the value of the goods. It is therefore no surprise that the cod merchants in Kristiansund were among the most affluent merchants in all of Norway.

An important element of this Golden Age was a long period of intense and direct contact with Spain. For almost fifty years, Spanish (Basque) sail ships arrived in Kristiansund in large numbers every spring to fill their holds with newly dried bacalhau fish, spending weeks and sometimes months in the city before heading home to Spain. This Spanish presence had an indelible effect on life in the town, giving it an international flavor and urbanity disproportionate to its size. The Spanish sailors became acquainted with the people of the town, Spanish words entered the local dialect, Spanish traditions found their way into the local cuisine. A lasting result of this intimate contact with Iberian cuisine is a dish lovingly prepared and eaten by generations of townspeople and known simply as “Bacalao” in Kristiansund. It is a variation of the classic “Bacalao à la Vizcaïna” or “Salt Cod in the Basque Manner”.

A dominating product in European markets since the late Middle Ages – bacalhau has beenfood for slaves, explorers and sailors alike; for peasants in Rioja, merchants in Bordeaux and craftsmen in Barcelona. One basic fact shines through all the variations in tradition and time: bacalhau is quite simply good to eat. It is a preferred kind of food, especially for the bigger occasions. Salting and drying, originally a method developed simply to preserve fresh fish, give it a unique flavor and consistency – the final result depending on what kind of fish is used and how it is treated before, during and after the drying process. The fish matures during the salting process, the drying and final storage, giving rise to natural variations that lend an exciting uncertainty to the final product. The dried fish keeps virtually forever if it is stored cool and dry, but our modern varieties today must be consumed shortly after desalination. The entire dried fish can be used to make food, skin and bones included-

Detailed knowledge and expertise on how to prepare bacalhau fish is still widespread in Kristiansund. Not surprising in a town that has dominated an export market for two hundred years. Those centuries are all around you in Kristiansund - you can visit old salt cod warehouses from the 18th and 19th century, smell the odor of timbers so saturated with centuries of salt that no bacteria survive, see graffiti left by Spanish sailors in the 1840’s, touch the marks left by British cannon balls in 1808 and walk staircases worn through by the generations of men, women and children who dried, carried and packed the fish. All these elements and more bear witness to the fact that a central portion of Kristiansund’s identity is and always will be bacalhau.


[1] “Klippfisk” in Norwegian. Other languages: Bacalhau – Portuguese, Brazilian; Bacalao – Spanish; Baccalá – Italian: Bakalar – Dalmatian/Croatian; Bakalários – Greek; Morue plate/Espagnol – French; Salted, dried cod/saltfish – English.

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