Rising high in rank the lowly 'solfish' still keeps the mouth watering

By Bernard Heydorn
(December 5th.1998)

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Salt-fish, also called bacalao (Spanish), bacalhau (Portuguese), La Mou (French creole for La Morue), is legendary in West Indian cuisine. When I visited the historic Gaspé fishing village at Grand-Grève, Quebec, last summer, I stumbled upon an important linkage between the Caribbean and Canada.

Salt-fish, once a staple in the West Indian diet, is salted, dried, codfish, imported from Canada, historically, as standard food for slaves. Over the years, salt-fish was also used colloquially to mean cheap, or of low class, quality or character. Rudely, it was even used to describe a part of the female anatomy. A top hat came to be called a salt-fish cask and salt-fish was commonly sold in a small, salt goods shop. Portuguese, Spanish and French immigrants to the Caribbean also longed for salt-fish which had been part of the diet of their homelands for centuries.

In the Gaspé, I learned that Grand-Grève bristled with activity from May to October in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when hundreds of families along the coast and many seasonal workers caught cod, then dried and salted it at the world famous "Gaspé Cure". Salt-fish was then exported to Europe, South America and the Caribbean.

Under the control of two powerful fish companies, the poor people of Gaspé endured a form of exploitation, which was not too far removed from the lot of the slaves, to whom the fish was being sent. In the Gaspé, members of families had to sell their fish to one market, and they could sell there, only when they also bought there.

As a result, they literally never saw money!

They were allowed credit in the Company stores and were provided with necessary equipment, clothing and basic food, but it was all charged against their catch of fish. The merchants fixed both buying and selling prices and so the fishermen and their families were always in debt.

To make ends meet, the poor fisherman tried to do a little farming and raised a few animals on the side.

At the turn of the century, Boston may have been the home of cod, but Gaspé was the land of cod. Long before Columbus, however, Basque fishermen from the Bay of Biscay, had reached these Canadian shores. Henry Cabot, the early explorer, had reported seeing fish on the Newfoundland Banks, like a floor of silver! France was Catholic, a fish eating country requiring days of fasting. Thousands of its fishing boats were afloat from the North Atlantic to Newfoundland and the Gaspé.

Protestant England also needed fish to support her many fisheries and so the Tudor Monarchy decided that England must eat fish, not for the good of her soul, but for the good of her fisheries, which in turn supported her navies, which consequently attained widespread sea power. And so there lies the secret of the British taste for "fish an' chips". There also lies the secret of the fish wars. So, be it Normans, Basques, Bretons, English or other, the demand for cod has never ceased. In fact, it is often said that the early New England colonists paid off their taxes to the mother country in lumber and codfish.

In the early days, hundreds of fishermen crossed the North Atlantic in the spring, to the cod fisheries set up in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and the Gaspé coast. They carried provisions for six months and a cargo of salt for curing. In the waters of the harbours, stages were built on which the men landed their fish. The men scaled the cod as they were caught, but the splitting, heading and salting were generally done on the shore by men, women and children. Weighing was the last operation before the cod reached the barrel of brine.

All parts of the codfish were used. The livers were dropped into a vat through a hole in the splitting table. As the livers stewed in the sun, an incense called "the devil's perfume", rose to the heavens, a smell outranked in scent only by the cods' heads, lying festering in the sun nearby. Cod-liver oil was eventually extracted from the livers; glue was made from the skins; the head and entrails were used for the manufacture of fertilizers.

The fish, covered with just the right sprinkling of coarse salt, were placed in brine for a number of days. Afterward, the fish were carried out for their first exposure to the sun and air. They were put on flakes, which were scaffolds covered with under-brush. On the flakes, the fish were spread flesh side up during the day and turned skin side up for the night. It required about a month of sunlight to cure the cod on the flakes. The final drying of the cod was done on the beaches. The salted fish were packed into tubs, drums and casks of four hundred and forty eight pounds, for export. The best salt-fish was exported to Spain, Italy and Portugal, the second best went to Brazil, and the lowest grade to the West Indies. In return, the West Indies exported rum and molasses.

White fish, a large, high grade dried cod, was considered the best. The drier the cod became, the whiter the fish. The darker the fish, the lower the grade – some say a proof that there was racism even among fish, but I find that fishy! The stiff-as-a- board, cheaper, dark coloured salt-fish was called "don't care a damn, man" in the old days in Guyana, a form of creolese which some may venture to interpret.

In former days, 50 million cod were caught each year, off the Gaspé coast alone. No wonder, after 300 years of fishing by many nations, codfish and particularly the larger species, can hardly be found. This has in fact put the fishing industry in the Maritimes into abeyance, at the present time.

Caribbean people have enjoyed a delightful variety of salt-fish dishes over the years: salt-fish pie; salt-fish soufflé; salt-fish in chemise; salt-fish cakes; salt-fish and bread; salt-fish and metagee; salt-fish and pigtail; ackee and salt-fish; codfish fritters; salt-fish patties; salt-fish and dry food, and, last but not least, salt-fish stew which the Portuguese in Guyana ate religiously on Sunday mornings.

Under the strict manners of Burnham's dictatorship in Guyana, salt-fish, pigtail, flour and other staples were banned from the people. And so, along with the death of bread and roti in Guyana, out the window went "solfish", the result of a policy designed "to put the people on their feet" but which ended up bringing them to their knees instead!

Today, many people are down on salt, forgetting that "solfish" was once king; that men used it for war bait; people killed to defend it; some threw riches after it; others went mad if deprived of it; and some saved their souls by eating it.

For me, meh mout' still water when ah smell it, an' ah geh excited when ah see it. As the Mighty Sparrow sang in his classic calypso Solfish, "Forget duh smell, not'ing in duh worl' like solfish, when you out tuh eat, all solfish sweet!"

As odious as it may sound to some, ah t'ink he right.

"Courtesy of Indo Caribbean World, December 5th. 1998"