As spring turns into summer, walking along the Arno—fresh in the morning, with beautiful sunsets in the evening—gets me thinking of the sea, for it is not far away, and the late spring breeze wafts its aroma inland. I love eating seafood at this time of year, yet I still find myself craving a bit of comfort food. I am sure that is why the locals of Livorno invented their dish of baccalà alla Livornese: salted codfish, reconstituted in water, dusted in flour, fried in the best extra-virgin olive oil, then finished in a fine and simple tomato and herb sauce to absorb the flavours.
Qhen merluzzo, cod, a North Atlantic fish, most usually from Norway, is filleted, salted and air-dried in the sun, it is sold as baccalà (stoccafisso, on the other hand, is cod that is air-dried but not salted). Baccalà has a bendy, leathery appearance and refrigeration is not required until the fish is messo a bagno, soaking in water to rehydrate. Once seen as the poor man’s ‘Friday fish’ following earlier Christian rulings about abstaining from meat on Fridays—and perhaps responding to the need to help local fishermen sell their more expensive fresh catch—baccalà now forms the basis of this dish for the Livorno locals on the Tuscan coastline.
And so, at this time of year, with the weather inviting for al fresco dining, I love sitting down for lunch with friends in Florence’s piazza della Passera, in the Oltrarno, and eating the Florentine version of this dish, baccalà alla Fiorentina, prepared by the kitchen team at Trattoria 4 Leoni. Their Florentine version of baccalà includes potatoes as well as tomatoes. I also like to make the traditional baccalà alla Livornese at home to share with friends, and this is the recipe I share here.
BACCALÀ ALLA LIVORNESE (serves 4)
– 600 / 800g baccalà fillets, still salted and dried
– flour as needed
– 400g peeled tomatoes
– spring of rosemary
– extra-virgin olive oil
– 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
– peperoncino (dried chili)
Buy the baccalà three days before you want to eat this dish. As with all good things, preparation is just as important as the quality of the ingredients. I like to purchase my baccalà from Urbino at his stall inside Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. He sells his baccalà in whole fillets. Urbino will often slice up one of his spicy dried sausages and give out a taste to those waiting to be served. They’re delicious at any time, but he knows you’ll probably want some slices to go in a pot with the baccalà when you cook it in bianco.
Try to get one of the thicker baccalà fillets. Cut it into 5–6 cm squares and mettere in ammollo, that is, cover the squares in lashings of cold water. This process is important to draw the salt out of the fish and plump it up before cooking. Otherwise it will be dry, leathery and too salty to eat. Refrigerate for half a day, then change the water. Do this six times and three days will have passed before you reach the day of cooking—and eating!
Drain off all the water and rinse the baccalà under cold running water one last time. Pat the pieces dry with a clean cloth and set aside.
In a heavy-based pan, heat up two fingers of extra-virgin olive oil (this is the classic Italian measure of oil depth: with your fingers horizontal to the pan, it is measured in finger widths).
Dust the squares of baccalà in flour seasoned with salt and pepper and fry in the olive oil until golden brown, turning once. Turn off the flame and, with a slotted spoon, remove the fish from the pan and drain on absorbent paper. Set aside.
In another heavy-based pan heat up a little more of the oil, add two peeled and crushed garlic cloves plus a sprig of rosemary. Cook until you can smell the fragrances of the garlic and rosemary being released. Before the garlic caramelizes, add a very small tumbler of white wine. Leave this to reduce and follow by adding the chopped tomatoes plus a cup of water. Bring to the boil, let simmer for 10 minutes on its own, then add the sweet golden pillows of fried baccalàa, which have been patiently standing by, awaiting their sauce.
Let all simmer together for 10–15 minutes, taste for seasoning and serve. An optional extra is to add a few olives at this stage, and sprinkle with parsley before serving.
It is great to serve at just above room temperature.
Fresh, young and light with citrus notes and balanced oak, I find the local Grattamacco Bolgheri Vermentino 2011, a nice match to this dish.