It is certainly for sale. An ancient old lady with deep wrinkles sits at a small table on the boardwalk. Shawl over the head, dressed in black and dark mourning edges under the nails. On the table in front of her are various kinds of dried fish on a table. Buy buy, she says in Portuguese. The flattened mackerel and squid look at me. No thanks, I'm not in the mood for snacks right now.
Fishing is an important part of Portugal's history. The long western coast towards the cold Atlantic has always been an important source of income and fed a growing population. The ocean's great depth, nutrient-rich water and diversity of organisms bring with it large, nutritious fish species and quantities of shellfish. Fresh fish has never been a problem to get here in Nazaré. What has been difficult is storage. How could one keep the fish fresh in this heat?
An elderly man in a blue cap places cleaned mackerel on racks under a safety net on the beach. It's a bit of a puzzle to get as many fish as possible on the racks, but it goes away. He has done this many times. Probably for at least 50 years. The strong sun gasses the fish and the warm sand makes the air almost vibrate. After three days in the sun's rays, the fish is dried and ready to be sold. Dried fish lasts a very long time without a refrigerator.
The average age among the fishermen on the beach is high. It feels like they were all born around the time Salazar came to power. Military coup, dictatorship and revolution. What a history they carry. The only thing that has been constant throughout their long lives is the dried fish, which is dried as it always has been. The contrast is great with the colorful bathing suits and surfboards a little further down the beach. Some things evolve. Others not.
A trip in Portugal is a trip in the land of dried cod. Every single restaurant we visited during our trip around northern Portugal served bacalhao – cod. It is easy to think that cod is a native fish, but there is not a single cod lying here drying in the sun in Nazaré. Cod does not thrive in the waters off Portugal, but lives in the cold waters around Norway, Iceland and Newfoundland. So how can a non-Portuguese fish become more Portuguese than the local fish?
The answer lies far back in history, all the way back to the 15th century and the Portuguese explorers. When the Portuguese during their voyages of discovery discovered the large quantities of cod off Newfoundland, they signed a fishing agreement with England. But the distance home to Portugal was too great to be able to bring the fish home fresh. So they started salting and drying the cod on board the fishing boats, which increased the shelf life of the cod to several months. So if you see bacalhao on the menu, it is salted, dried and soaked cod that is either grilled, boiled or fried. If you want fresh cod, look for it bacalhao fresca instead. Bacalhao is eaten year-round here in Portugal, but it is a mandatory part of the Portuguese Christmas celebration. Much like our lutefish was popular on the Christmas table in the old days.
We leave the stranded fishermen to their fate in the sun and walk past the multicolored fishing boats. They are very nice, almost so nice that I wonder if they are just there as memorials of a bygone era. It is said that the fishermen continue to pull up their boats here on the beach every day, even though nowadays there is a port. While it is unclear if these boats are catching any fish these days, they are very picturesque. We take some pictures. Maybe a few too many.
Isn't it time for coffee soon? Maybe something good to nibble on? We glance at the aunt with the dried fish. Well, it will probably be an ice cream today.
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