Salt cod: it’s why we’re here

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Paul
Paul Smith
 
Published on November 08, 2014

 

 

When you take a splitting knife in your hand, steel it to a razor’s edge and lift the sound bone of a cod with its curved blade, you are continuing a centuries-old tradition steeped into the history of seafaring peoples around the world. For hundreds of years Newfoundland and Labrador was at the epicentre of the cod-salting universe.

The Norse or Vikings first settled in Newfoundland around 1000 A.D. and it is believed that they were able to travel such a vast distance under sail and oar only because they had learned to dry and preserve cod by drying it in the wind.

The Basques were the first to use salt to preserve cod. They had been using a similar process to cure whale meat and subsequently discovered a perfect marriage between salt and the wonderful white flesh of the Atlantic cod.

It has been suggested that the Basques might have salted Newfoundland cod before 1497. They were whaling at Red Bay as early as 1530, and who knows what next archeologists might uncover? It’s reasonable to assume the Basques may have been secretive about their most lucrative fisheries.

After Cabot’s official discovery of Newfoundland, and his proclamation of our cod-rich waters, cod commerce began.

The race was on. Fishing nations were all anxious to get their fair share of Newfoundland cod. Portugal, England, France and Spain went at it with iron men and wooden ships. Those must have been adventurous times for many young men and woman.

Can you imagine leaving home in the springtime and fishing all summer along coasts of a land that you didn’t even know existed a decade previous? I’m sure the work was hard and the days long, but any soul with an adventurous spirit can’t help but romanticize just a little.

In any event, cod soon became the key commodity of the international trading world, no different than oil today. The price of salt cod meant everything to many, rich and poor alike.

Eventually, folks grew tired of sailing back and forth across the stormy ocean and began to settle in Newfoundland and call it home for 12 months of the year. Those are our ancestors, the hardy fisherpeople, brave and rugged enough to leave their homes in England, Ireland and France to settle on this rugged coastline to live off the land. It must not have been an easy life. Timber for homes, boats, wharves and stages had to be cut and hauled in winter. There were no contractors to build you a house, and certainly no electric heat. Vegetables had to be grown in the rocky soil. Water wells had to be dug and walled by hand, root cellars the same. There is no wonder that we are a tough breed, quite capable of surviving a squall of snow or a shower of freezing rain.

It is a heritage of which I, for one, am very proud.

In 1976, I finished high school and did a stint at construction work while waiting for MUN to open in September.

I continued with university and summer construction work until the spring of 1980. I decided I had had enough of wheeling cement and lugging around lumber, I wanted to go fishing.

Actually, the idea had been brewing in my head for a while. I had started building a 20-foot wooden fishing boat the pervious summer and had launched it for a seabird hunt that winter. My parents were supportive and my father knew enough about fishing from his younger years to help me get started. I had no idea how to split and salt a cod. Dad had spent about 15 years in the Labrador migratory fishery.

But you know what, he couldn’t split. I had to learn that from Don Sheppard, now one of my neighbours here in Spaniard’s Bay. He has been a fisherman all his life.

I bought trawl lines, many hundreds of hooks, nets, gaffs and all sorts of associated gear. I had saved up significantly from construction work and tuition was cheap in those days.

I built a shed for salting cod and by early May I had nets in the water. I was now living in a different world, up every morning long before daylight, on the water and hauling gill nets by hand. I had no hydraulic power, but I was 19 years old and eager to work and make money on my own.

My hands toughened quickly.

The plan was to salt all the cod I could and sell it in the fall. My parents lived right on the main highway and they would just nail a sign on the wire pole.

Being a student I didn’t need any employment stamps or anything of that sort. I was a free-spirited entrepreneur and having the time of my life. I sold just enough fresh fish to the local plant to keep fuel in my boat, and my mother kept me well fed.

By summer’s end I had salted and dried 50 quintals of cod. I ended up with $5,000 dollars for my summer’s labour.

That was pretty darn good money for a student in 1980. I think that might have been the best summer of my life.

Looking back, I’m so grateful that I went fishing. I learned so many of the skills that are soon going to be lost in the mists of time.

First off, I learned how to build a traditional fishing boat, harvesting all I needed from the forest. I spent a lot time hiking around the woods with that old Pioneer chain saw. Then I’d lug those heavy sticks to the truck on my shoulder.

An ATV would have been wonderful, but those were a decade away.

I learned to knit twine, splice rope, drive oakum, scull a boat, steel a knife, split cod, navigate by compass and God knows what else. My time in the fishing boat connected me to my heritage more deeply than reading or talking, or watching TV programs ever could have. To this day, when I hold the splitting knife in my hand, it all comes rushing back.

I think for us Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, the recreational cod fishery is much more than just a chance to put protein in the freezer. Going out on the ocean and catching cod is how we connect to our past and feel a part of our traditional culture. Many say it is not, but I argue that it is our right.

For me salting, my catch and drying it on a flake for winter storage is the absolute best part.

Many folks nowadays salt fish and throw it right in the freezer without the kiss of the sun. There’s no need, I suppose goes the logic, after all, that’s why we have refrigeration. I suppose, but the whole purpose in salting fish is to preserve it, and besides, the sun adds a unique flavour and essence to salt cod.

Maybe it’s just my mind but I believe it to be so, and that’s what’s important. And I think we owe it to all those seafaring folk who pulled a line, baited a hook and held a tiller long before deep freezers were even dreamed up.

Curing your own fish is a way to pay tribute and respect.

Learn to split a fish, cure it in salt and dry it in the sun. You will enjoy your fishcakes and brewis even more.

 

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.   or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock