Stockfish and the Texture of Trust in the Early Modern Period

Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Jan Miense Molenaer. Battle Between Carnival and Lent. c.1633-34. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

By Jack B. Bouchard

Stockvisch muss man bleüwen – One must beat stockfish” declared Balthasar Staindl in the first line of a lengthy entry on cooking cod in his 1544 Kochbuch.[1] Wielding a blunt instrument, the sixteenth century cook was meant to hammer away at the flesh of a desiccated, full-length codfish until it was soft enough to soak in water. For this reason many markets sold purpose-made stockfish hammers, which regularly appear in early modern household inventories and ship cargo manifests. Hammering away at the dried flesh of what was once a living, deep-sea fish broke it down the fibers and made it easier for them to absorb water. So common was the practice that in Venice imported, dried stockfish was popularly known as battuto, “beaten,” derived from the word battere, ‘to beat.’[2] Here was a food which made you grapple with texture in a direct way: to eat it you had to beat it.

Though today it is overshadowed by its salt-cured cousin bacalao, in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries a kind of preserved fish called “stockfish,” literally a fish like a stock of wood, was amongst the most widely consumed proteins in northern Europe. In the widespread consumption of stockfish we can see that texture was not merely an ancillary consideration, a factor of taste, for early modern diners. Texture itself carried information about nutrition and was valued on its own terms. The dryness of stockfish conveyed that it was a manmade, preserved kind of meat, one which could be relied upon to stay edible for a long time. You could trust your battuto precisely because of its hard, unyielding texture.

Cod, which lives in the far north Atlantic from Norway to Newfoundland, was important to households and military contractors alike because its oil-free flesh was easy to dry for preservation. Stockfish was a kind of codfish which could only be made at very northern latitudes, such as Norway and Iceland, where the cold winters and windy coasts made air-drying possible. Whole fish were headed, gutted and split open before being left outside on racks. The cold winds, alternating with sunlight, effectively freeze-dried the fish. The result was a board-like fish mummy, rock-hard and tough, earning the popular nickname “buckhorne” in England for its resemblance to animal horn. Today in Nigeria stockfish is even sold as “okporoko,” so named for the sound the hard pieces of fish make as they clang against a metal pot. Freeze-dried cod were sold whole in the market, stacked like logs or hung on walls, and were instantly recognizable to early modern consumers thanks to their long, thin shape. A seventeenth-century Dutch painting shows stockfish being wielded like a club by a group of monks – like a stick of wood, it could be used as a weapon.

To sixteenth-century consumers, it was the texture of stockfish which mattered more than its taste. Stockfish meat was thought too bland to be nutritious by many experts, including Erasmus of Rotterdam, but this was compensated for by its unusual physical nature. It was from its hard, dry consistency that the food derived its most important quality, that of durability. Cod which had been transformed into stockfish resisted decay in a manner that was unusual, even unnatural, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English sources sometimes called it pessoun dure (poisson dur, hard fish), or even winterfish, so-called for its ability to last throughout the cold months when other food had spoiled.[3] Without water it could not rot, mold or putrefy. Where most fish would rot in a matter of days, stockfish could be trusted to last not merely months but years before going bad, and it could be shipped over vast distances. Though coming from Norway and Iceland it was popular as far as Budapest, Rome and Seville. In an age of food insecurity and uncertainty these qualities were much-prized and sought out by consumers, creating a pan-European culture of stockfish cookery by the early sixteenth century.

But that trust came at a cost, for processed cod like stockfish could not be consumed directly, but rather underwent a texture-reversing treatment which could border on the violent – it had to be made battuto before it was ready to be eaten. Cooks learned that beating, soaking and burning the freeze-dried cod produced a softer, moist fish which could be boiled, roasted, mashed or fried. The hard texture had to be forcibly altered through hammering and soaking. In English, the process was described as ‘weakening’ the fish, and partially soaked stockfish was known as wokedfish (i.e. weakened-fish) in fifteenth century London.[4] To speed up soaking, the German cookbook of Sabina Welseren called for adding caustic lye to the water, and in the sixteenth century Hanse merchants sold lye-soaked cod dressed with mustard on the wharves of London.[5] Too much lye could even create something entirely different from dry or soaked fish, a gelatinous and translucent lutfisk which was popular around the Baltic. But if its rigidity could be weakened, the artificial texture could not be entirely eliminated. Resuscitated stockfish would never quite be like fresh fish, and always remained firmer, more fibrous and denser than the real thing. Each bite was an inescapable reminder of a food which had been processed and remade by humans.

[1] Baltasar Staindl. Ain künstlichs und nützlichs Kochbuch. (Germany: 1547). 22.

[2] This is known from a reference made by the Venetian merchant Alessandro Magno while visiting London in 1561, “un certo pesco seco che viene dalle Indie, e chiamano stofis, che vien a dire in nostra lengua battuto, et altramente si chiamano Bacalari.”  Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a. 259. “Account of Alessandro Magno’s journeys to Cyrpus, Egypt, Spain, England, Flanders, Germany and Brescia, 1557-1565.” fol. 176.

[3] Examples can be found throughout: C.M. Woolgar. Household Accounts from Medieval England. 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] Laura Wright. Sources of London English: Medieval Thames Vocabulary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). 102-105.

[5] A transcription of Sabina Welserin’s book, dated to 1555, can be found at: http://www.staff.uni-giessen.de/gloning/tx/sawe.htm. For the description of Hanse merchant, see: Thomas Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation. (London : Thomas Newcomb, 1655). 262.

Jack Bouchard serves as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where he works with the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh History Department in 2018, and currently contributes to the Before Farm to Table team’s ongoing efforts to explore, through publicly-oriented research and programming, evolving food cultures and thought in early modern Europe. Dr. Bouchard’s research interests involve fish consumption and maritime food production in early modern Europe, as well as the environmental history of islands in the early Atlantic.


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