My first encounter with stockfish (unsalted wind-dried cod) came in the mid-seventies, when I tasted that delicious Niçois speciality, estocaficada. It is a dish where the startlingly gamey flavour of stockfish is accentuated by garlic, tomatoes and black olives. Later I came to translate Jacques Médecin’s La Cuisine du Comté de Nice (Cuisine Niçoise, Penguin, 1983), which naturally contains a recipe for estocaficada, and began to look more closely at this Ur-food extraordinary. A highly valuable bundle of calories, vitamins and minerals — stockfish was used as legal tender in Iceland until the turn of the century — wind-dried cod from Scandinavia was much appreciated as a preserve in southern Europe from very early times. The French manuscript of 1392-3 which has been published as Le Mesnagier de Paris says it could be kept for as long as twelve years: ‘Item, quant icelle morue est prise es marces de la mer et l’en veult icelle garder .x. ou .xii. ans, l’en l’effondre et luy oste l’en la teste, et est seichee a l’air et au soleil, et non mye au feu ou a la fumee. Et ce fait, elle est nommee stofix.’[*] The reference books I consulted at the time I translated Médecin’s book said that nowadays stockfish is eaten in Portugal, Spain, the Côte d’Azur and Italy (especially Venice), as well as parts of Africa.

A few years later I moved house to the Châtaigneraie, which is a good 150 kilometres from the Mediterranean as the crow flies. I assumed that the only fish traditionally eaten there, apart from the produce of its lakes and rivers, was, as in the rest of the Auvergne, salt cod (morue). Then one November day I went into the superette in my nearest market town, Maurs. As I stood in front of the fruit and vegetable counter, my nostrils were engaged by a curiously insistent and not very pleasant smell which reminded me of the fish food which, as a boy, I used to give our goldfish. There, next to bags of potatoes, was a cluster of stockfish standing upright in a tub like baguettes at the baker’s. Just as when I had last encountered them, in a Nice grocery, I caught a split-second image of agonizing pain: this optical illusion was caused by the way the gill-bones of the dried and headless fish formed what looked like a screaming mouth. What on earth, I wondered, was the creature doing in the Massif Central?

Illustration: Eulalia Pensado, from ‘Petits Propos Culinaires’ № 34

Friends in Mourjou told me that estofinado was a favourite local stockfish dish, eaten from All Saints’ Day to Easter (the reasons for this ‘season’ became clear later). Local restaurants apparently vied with each other to produce the best version. So I booked a table at a warmly recommended restaurant in the village of Almont-les-Junies, near Decazeville (named after Elie Decaze, who developed coal and iron ore extraction there in the early 19th century; it was formerly known as La Sala). When we arrived, it struck us as odd that such a small village should have a spacious car-park, much of which was occupied by large coaches. It turned out that the village had three competing estofinado restaurants, and had had to build facilities to cope with the coachloads of old-age pensioners, Algerian war veterans and hunters’ associations whose winter gastronomic outings centred on stockfish.

Our meal began, naturally, with vegetable soup, followed by a platter of raw ham and saucisson sec. Next came a vol-au-vent with a mushroom and sweetbread filling, followed by a pause, then the estofinado. It looked like a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes. But when sampled it revealed its other ingredients: cream, eggs, garlic, parsley and what looked like little wood chips — the stockfish. The flavour was indescribable. Behind the familiar tastes there lurked a flavour that was neither fishy nor meaty nor cheesy, but had overtones of all three — and was excellent. When asked if we wanted a second helping (a tradition with estofinado in restaurants), we rashly beamed and nodded, and another steaming bowl appeared. Little did we realize that the estofinado was not the plat de résistance. It was followed by roast chicken, cheese and iles flottantes with fouace (a local brioche). Nowadays, with our smaller appetites, stockfish usually features as a main course on its own.

Later, after seeking local advice, I decided to have a go at making estofinado myself. I had been warned that it was a time-consuming and complicated exercise, so, to make it worthwhile, I first waited till I had a houseful of guests. The stockfish I bought was extremely hard and plank-like. As a joke I laid its tail on one chair and its ‘mouth’ on another, and took a photograph of my ten-year-old god-daughter sitting on its middle (covered with a piece of newspaper to protect her clothes from the smell). The stockfish’s woodlike qualities persisted during the first stage of making the dish, which requires it to be sawn up into sections and soaked in water: as I sawed away, a gentle rain of stockfish dust fell to the floor. Soaking stockfish is no simple operation like desalting salt cod. It takes anything from four to six days for the dried fish to reconstitute itself, and it needs to be soaked in running water (or under a dripping tap). If this is impossible, the water it soaks in has to be changed very frequently. This is because stockfish is not salted at all and can go off very quickly. Hence its consumption during the winter months only.

Paul Ramadier, mayor of Decazeville, a small industrial town in the heart of estofinado country, from 1919 to 1959, and prime minister of France in 1947, reportedly devised a technique to reproduce the changing of the water the stockfish was soaking in. When he was prime minister, he put his stockfish in the lavatory cistern of his residence, Hôtel Matignon – to the great alarm of his staff – thus ensuring the water was changed several times a day.

My stockfish had swollen considerably after six days of soaking under a trickling tap from a rainwater tank. There was scum on the water — and a stench that defied description. When the stockfish was cooked (a 45-minute simmer), I embarked on the lengthy task of picking the flesh off the bone. I had nearly finished — neat piles of skin, bones and flesh littered the kitchen table — when my guests returned from a walk. The smell that greeted them as they came in from the bracing Auvergne air prompted various reactions, the mildest of which was ‘I’m not eating any of that stuff!’ The fact that those same people later ate their words, and indeed clamoured for second and third helpings of estofinado, was not so much a tribute to my cooking as evidence of the extraordinary way the aggressive flavour of stockfish transmogrifies itself, when combined with potatoes, cream, eggs, garlic and parsley, into something delicate and gently aromatic.

I was naturally interested in finding out how stockfish had become a traditional dish in the Châtaigneraie. Its presence on the Côte d’Azur was easily explained: for centuries Norwegian sailors had exchanged it for fresh fruit and vegetables. But this far inland? The books I consulted were of little help, apart from revealing that the area of the southern Massif Central where estofinado is eaten is larger than I had imagined, stretching as far as Figeac (Lot) to the west and Villefranche-de-Rouergue (Aveyron) to the south. The fact that this area is bisected by the river Lot, which was for a time navigable from Bordeaux as far as Vieillevie, just before Entraygues, seemed an important clue.

Authors offered a variety of theories about the presence of stockfish in the area, some of them plausible enough, but none supported by hard evidence. It had been brought there, they variously alleged, by North European pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, by Norwegian merchants who had come to buy wool in Villefranche and Figeac in the late Middle Ages, or by local soldiers who had fought in Louis XIV’s campaigns in the Low Countries and picked up the habit of eating stockfish there.

In a chapter entitled ‘Un Ilot insolite de consommation du stockfisch: les confins Rouergue-Quercy’, in Alimentation et régions (Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1989), Guy Mergoil contributed by far the most thorough examination so far of the estofinado phenomenon in the southern Massif Central. Mergoil quotes yet other ‘explanations’ for the presence of stockfish, but concludes that it is well-nigh impossible to distinguish myth from reality. However, he goes on to say that since stockfish could be kept for a very long time and has a high nutrition/volume ratio its consumption could easily have been introduced by troops in the Middle Ages, before becoming more widespread with the development of river traffic and trade with northern Europe. Its consumption grew in the 19th century as a result of the industrial revolution in and around Decazeville and the arrival there of many Spanish immigrant workers. Mergoil charts estofinado’s gradual transformation from poor peasant fare into a rather expensive dish for special occasions.

After spending some time in the Archives Départementales du Cantal, I discovered that one of the Black Prince’s most feared captains, the Cheshire-born Sir Robert Knolles, may have fed his troops on stockfish during the Hundred Years War. Although he made a brief and unsuccessful attack on Figeac in 1369, he did not seem to have been active in the Decazeville (La Sala) area, according to Jonathan Sumption’s definitive history of the Hundred Years War (four volumes so far, with a fifth to come). Knolles’s name may have got attached to otherwise undistinguished bands of routiers during the 100-years war – after the event – because he was such a well-known captain, with such a colourful (and stained) history. It appears that the ruined gable-ends of houses burnt down by the routiers generally came to be known as ‘Knolles’s mitres’.

A book by Abbé Joseph Rouquette, called Le Rouergue sous les Anglais (Imprimerie Artières et J. Maury, 1887), showed that English troops, as well as non-English mercenaries, were almost constantly present in the Rouergue area after 1360, when the treaty of Brétigny gave Edward III the whole of south-west France. Some of them joined uncontrolled bands of armed routiers that looted villages, extorted money and held people to ransom.

According to Rouquette, such groups of routiers holed up for several years in what is now the Châtaigneraie, making sorties from time to time when they ran short of supplies. One group, who had built a small fortress called Castel d’Alzo, made an expedition to Millau on 19 November 1379, captured fourteen inhabitants of the town as well as a large number of cattle, and took them back to their hideout. The hostages were released when an envoy from Millau, Guilhem Pellegry, paid a ransom which included money, a dagger and a chest, as well as ten partridges. All that remains of Castel d’Alzo, or Castel d’Auze as it is now called, are some ruins tucked away in the steep-sided valley of the Auze river, 8 kilometres as the crow flies from Mourjou.

All this shows that the English were well established in the area for a number of years, and certainly long enough to have introduced stockfish. That stockfish formed part of the victuals of Edward III’s troops in France seems well established. Herbert James Hewitt, in The Organization of War under Edward III (Manchester University Press, 1966), says that victuals obtained in England for foreign campaigns included ‘fish: commonly stockfish or herrings or “dried fish”, bought in hundreds or thousands, and chiefly for Gascony’.

One or two other mysteries remain. We do not know what form estofinado took before the potato’s arrival in the area towards the end of the eighteenth century. But on the analogy of the bread-and-cheese dish patranque, which preceded the potato-and-cheese truffade, it is likely that stockfish was mixed with bread, or at least eaten with bread.

Why is estofinado consumed only in an area surrounding one stretch of the upper Lot and not farther down the river? Mergoil suggests that it is because peasants farther downstream had more abundant resources and therefore did not need to rely on dried fish. He also points out that they had much less running water at their disposal for the soaking process. But there is much evidence that when running water was lacking another technique was used — both in France and in Italy — to make the woodlike stockfish fit for human consumption. According to Le Mesnagier de Paris, if the stofix was first beaten with a mallet for an hour it then needed to be soaked in warm water for only twelve hours or so, rather than for several days.

Why stockfish is so called also remains a mystery. Both the Old English ‘stocc’ and the Old High German ‘stock’ mean ‘a stick’. But to what does the stick refer? Most plausibly, in my view, it describes the phenomenal stick-like hardness of the fish. Others argue that it got its name because it was habitually beaten with a mallet or stick. Mergoil mentions yet another possible derivation: it was so called because the fish was dried on wooden poles.

As with many peasant dishes, there are several ways of making estofinado, but the basic ingredients vary little. Some say no estofinado is complete without walnut oil, either added smoking-hot and in large quantities at the last moment, or used to sauté the stockfish flakes in. Others (including myself) find that the pungency of walnut oil cancels out the subtle stockfish flavour. It also makes an already rich dish much richer. Another addition commonly found in restaurants — but frowned upon by the purists — is chopped-up hard-boiled eggs. They have the effect of spinning out the dish.

Good quality oil is often added to ‘lubricate’ the dish. Mashed potatoes, in the orthodox version, can absorb a vast amount of oil. The following recipe, which was given to me by Eliette Pons, of the excellent Auberge de la Cascade near the charming little bastide of Villecomtal (Aveyron), uses diced potatoes instead, which are less absorbent and thus obviate the need for oil on top of the eggs and lashings of cream. Of the many versions of estofinado I have tasted, this is easily the best.


[For eight]

  • 650g (1lb 7oz) stockfish (unsoaked)
  • 650g (1lb 7oz) potatoes, peeled and cut into very small dice
  • vegetable oil
  • 800ml (28fl oz) single cream
  • 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • salt

Saw the stockfish into 15cm (6in) lengths, place in a very large saucepan and soak for 6 days under a trickling tap (alternatively, change the water twice a day). Rinse, place in well-salted boiling water and simmer for 45 minutes, skimming from time to time.

Sauté the potatoes gently in oil in a non-stick sauté pan until cooked. Strain the stockfish. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, quickly separate the flesh from the skin and bones (if the stockfish is allowed to cool too much it becomes impossibly sticky to handle). Cut a little of the skin (about 1 tablespoonful) into very thin strips and add to the fish flakes.

Put the potatoes into a large, deep fireproof dish or casserole, add the fish and mix together over a very low heat. When very hot but not sizzling, add the cream, garlic, pepper and parsley and continue stirring until hot. At the last moment mix in the eggs, stir a little longer (but do not allow the eggs to solidify), add salt to taste, and serve immediately.

(Auberge de la Cascade, Polissal, 12320 St-Félix-de-Lunel. Tel: 05 65 44 61 54)

As with truffade, which uses the unsalted Tomme fraîche de Cantal, it is important to salt the estofinado properly, as stockfish is not salted. This is not always adequately stressed by cookery writers — indeed, the authors of no fewer than six books on the cuisine of the Massif Central in my possession imagine that stockfish is salted as well as dried and assume that estofinado needs no ‘added’ salt at all. This suggests that none of those authors ever actually bothered to make an estofinado.

[*] Le Mesnagier de Paris, Livre de Poche, 1994, II, v, p. I94. “Item, when this cod is caught in coastal regions and you wish to keep it for ten or twelve years, you gut it and cut off its head; it is dried in the air and in the sun, and not exposed to fire or smoke. When this has been done, it is called stockfish.”

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