Our first experience with salt cod was in a little French restaurant in Virginia. The cod was mixed into a creamy brandade, a rich dip that we recreated over and over for anyone willing to eat at our house. Finding good salt cod in grocery stores in the United States was a challenge. It was also a rare item on restaurant menus. We were thrilled to find that here in Spain, salt cod – called bacalao in Spanish- is everywhere.
In Spain, the word “bacalao” is used to refer to both fresh codfish and salted cod, which can be confusing. The Spanish love bacalao, both salted and fresh. It is one of the most frequently eaten fish here, even though cod is not found in the waters surrounding Spain. It is a cold water fish from the North Atlantic and North Sea. Most of the cod in Spain comes from Norway, Newfoundland and Iceland.
People have been preserving cod with salt for over 500 years to enable them to have fish available year round. Before it can be eaten, salt cod must first be soaked in water for up to 3 days to remove the salt and rehydrate the fish. Of course it is no longer necessary to preserve fish this way, but salt cod remains very popular in Spain, Portugal and other Mediterranean countries because of its unique texture and flavor.
Most restaurants in Spain have bacalao on their menus. One of our favorite spots for bacalao in Valencia is the Taberna el Balconcillo. This little restaurant is tucked into a side street along the very busy Carrer de Sant Vincent Martir. We found it through luck one day when trying to dodge the crowds on a journey to find something interesting to eat in Old Town.
Taverna el Balconcillo makes a very nice Ajoarriero, a typical Spanish dish of shredded desalted bacalao mixed with potato, lots of garlic and olive oil. Usually served as a tapa with toast, it is very similar to our beloved brandade.
The Bacalao Gratinado is the dish that keeps us coming back. A generous portion of bacalao filets are lightly fried, then smothered in muselina de ajo (a creamy sauce of garlic, olive oil, and egg that is similar to alioli). The whole thing is then browned under the broiler. The result is ridiculously rich and velvety. If you’re looking for a light fish dish, this isn’t it. But it is a perfect fish for winter. The bacalao is accompanied by sauteed spinach with raisins and pine nuts topped by a sweet tomato compote. This is a very satisfying plate for only €11.
Check out the selection of wines by the glass on the black board. The Musgo Verdejo from D.O. Rueda was a nice match for €2.20 per glass.
Taberna El Balconcillo also offers an €11 menu del dia for lunch and a regular menu of typical Spanish foods. I know that we should explore the rest of the menu, but it’s hard to have something else when I know that the Bacalao Gratinado exists.
Taberna El Balconcillo
Carrer de Sant Ferran, 4
Monday – Saturday 11:00AM – 5:00PM, 7:00PM – 12:00AM