Recently I was invited to participate in the live TV broadcast "Verão Total", about the 7 Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy, to speak about the Lisbon candidate "Pastel de Bacalhau" (cod fritters). Initially, I was apprehensive, and half jokingly asked what I could and couldn’t say in front of the cameras. The thing is, people know my opinion about this contest. A contest is a contest and this one only included pre-selected candidate recipes presented according to the rules. However, the rules could have been better thought out and the Scientific Board possibly should have presented other options.  After the 21 finalists were decided upon, the debate ended and now the general public has to select the winning 7. However, what matters most is the visibility and publicity that this competition offers our rich culinary heritage.
Once again, let me categorically say that cod fritters are not a direct consequence of the Portuguese Discoveries. These fritters were only made when the potato was introduced in Portugal, and it is the potato that will be the fritter’s downfall. The first mention of potatoes in Portugal dates back to 1760, and only in 1798 did Queen Maria I publish an incentive for the planting of potatoes in the Azores.
It is here that we encounter potato plantations on the mainland when the Academy of Sciences awarded the gold medal to D. Teresa de Sousa Maciel for potato production. Curiously, the first cod recipe in the shape of a "cake" or "fritter" dates back to 1841, in the book "Arte do Cozinheiro e do Copeiro" by the Viscount of Vilarinho de S. Romão, who, in the same year, also published the book "Practical Handbook of Potato Growing", however this recipe is closer to our pataniscas. The Viscount was actually the son of D. Teresa de Sousa Maciel.
It was in 1876, in the book "Art of Cooking" by João da Mata, that two recipes for cod fritters similar to the modern day version appeared; "cod fritters Hollandaise style" and "cod fritters". The former are very similar to today’s, except for the fact that they contain grated cheese.
According to my friend and expert, André Magalhães, they still make "fish cakes" in Holland that are very similar to ours, only they use fresh cod. The latter are actually not fried but baked in the oven in custard tart tins. I have tried this method, but without the cheese, and didn’t particularly like it. Frying them adds a little something. However, I think that this recipe has the ideal proportions; twice as much cod as potato. This was always what we did at home. In 1903, a compilation of recipes by JM Sousa Pereira was published in the book "A Cozinha Moderna” (The Modern Kitchen), which included one that resembles the current fritter but with the cod and potato being fried in pork butter (?). I haven’t tried this recipe ...
The following year, in his book "Tratado de Cozinha e de Copa", Carlos Bento da Maia presented a regularizing recipe with the name "cod pies", and this is where the name "cod cakes" comes from. This recipe uses milk to bind the cod and potatoes and stiff egg whites. It also indicates plenty of olive oil for frying “so that the cakes are dropped into it without touching the bottom of the pan."
From this date onwards, "cod balls" in the north or "cod fritters" in the south, have been a constant feature in Portuguese recipes. I don’t wish to dwell on the subject too much on their origin. Prestigious authors, such as Maria de Lourdes Modesto and Maria Emilia Cancella de Abreu attribute them to the Minho Region. And in the book "Gastronomic Culture in Portugal" from CFPSA, as well as "Minho Cuisine" by Alfredo Saramago, it is clearly stated that this gastronomic gem comes from Minho. Lisboners are forgiven for wanting to stake a claim...!
At the beginning of the text I stated that the fritter or cake has only existed since the appearance of the potato, however, it is the potato that has contributed to its decline because of the change in the proportion of cod to potatoes used. Economic reasons, have turned the cod fritter into a potato fritter.
In my house, and I remember watching them being made; half a kilo of cod and two hundred and fifty grams of potato were used. Of course, these amounts sometimes varied depending on who was making them. The quality of the potato varied; some were harder, others more floury. Once the cod was boiled (often the cod used for the fritters was the cod left over from the “Bacalhau cozido com todos” eaten the day before), the skin and bones were removed. When I was still working and found a fish bone I used to complain to the cook. For every bone found, the cook should lose a day's holiday.
After the cod is shredded by hand and placed in a thick cloth; make a ball from the cod and press it by hand for the cod to be completely shredded. My mother said that this was crucial for the fritters to be ultra-light. In the meanwhile, the potatoes, which are boiled in their skin, should be mashed and mixed with a little nutmeg.  Then, the cod and mashed potatoes are put into a large bowl with a very finely chopped onion and a bunch of chopped parsley and mixed together.
Then, add four whole eggs, one by one, until you feel that the mixture is consistent. Now comes another important moment: tasting the mixture. Depending on how it tastes, season it with two teaspoons of port wine, salt and white pepper. I was always around because I enjoyed licking the spoon used for the wine. Now, after putting the mixture in a tall receptacle with plenty of olive oil, with the help of two spoons, shape the fritters to be fried. Then, place them on kitchen paper and put into a serving dish, never on top of one another, otherwise they lose their texture.
Cod fritters work well as a starter with a green salad or black-eyed peas, or as a main dish, preferably served with tomato rice. They are also a great snack between meals. Naturally they’ll taste better with a good glass of wine.
© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes
July 2011
"Cod Fritters" from ADEGA FAUSTINO in Chaves