A story of fish that have made history
di Ilaria Persello In the beginning was anchovy Anchovies swim in big schools and, generally, do not move away from the coast. For this reason, they have always fished anchovies...
di Ilaria Persello In the beginning was anchovy Anchovies swim in big schools and, generally, do not move away from the coast. For this reason, they have always fished anchovies...
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Florence University of Arts – The American University of Florence FUA – AUF Architect, writer, entrepreneur and the art of cooking Florence – Walking in Via...
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di Ilaria Persello
In the beginning was anchovy
Anchovies swim in big schools and, generally, do not move away from the coast. For this reason, they have always fished anchovies from ancient times. They still bait them in the sea in front of Catania following an old technique, adopted all around the Mediterranean Sea back to the time of Homer, with nets called menaidi. Anchovies were considered a delicacy already by Archestratus of Gela in the IV century BC.
Over the centuries, anchovies were significant and greatly appreciated because they were the essential ingredient to prepare the garum, a sauce familiar in ancient Rome but even in other Mediterranean civilizations, from the Greeks to the Punic, and with variations in Turkey and the East.
For Ligurians, they were the bread of the sea, and they brought them up to Piedmont. The story of anchovies connects to salt (and its contraband). The salt route, not only in Provence, helped this tiny fish reach the hinterland.
Authors have documented their preservation under salt over time. It is no coincidence if, for this reason, also Giovanni Verga described this technique in narrating the life of anglers in I Malavoglia.
Like anchovies, sardines are also one of the most common bluefish. They ate them fresh, although, according to Aristotle, they were already marketed in salt (later in oil) from Sardinia throughout the world known up to then.
The long journey of herrings
They are so popular that even Van Gogh eternalized the herrings, perhaps the most influential fish in human history, as Brian Fagan underlined in his hard-to-find book dedicated to this little fish. They have founded cities and moved wars because of the herrings. In some moments, almost by itself, it fed the whole of Europe. Especially when crops were scarce or during wartime, anchovies saved many lives.
For many centuries, they could not haul oily sea fish as herrings for long distances inland since transportation could easily contribute to spoiling them in a short time, and they did not last even if treated rudimentarily with the method of salting.
With the foundation of more and more monasteries and the improvement of the diet, both in monasteries and castles, all around Europe, the request for fish rose. The reason was partly due to the spread of Christianity: Lenten and weekly fasting, especially on Fridays, became an essential sign of Christian conformity. That involvement in fasting created a global-wide industry for fish.
Herring and cod dominated the Medieval diet based on seafood. Herring and its close relative, the sardine, were the most copious fish in the sea. Unfortunately, their oily flesh tends to go off almost immediately; hence, they needed salting or a combination of salting and smoking to conserve this fish. That way, they obtained the so-called salacche (salted fish). The Duch became proficient in preserving salted fish in barrels. For centuries they dominated the European trade, developing many varieties of conserved herring, among which the tasty young herrings, which have still not produced eggs and sperm, kept in salt, sugar and potassium nitrate.
The trading of herring in the Netherlands started in the XIV century with the drying and smoking processes, helping the growth of new industries that processed and preserved this fish. The Dutch soon began to commercialize the conserved herrings building more boats. The trade of herrings brought the Dutch Empire to exploit and colonize new territories, becoming one of the great national powers in the world.
They transported these fish around the North Sea, opening the doors to great exchanges among different populations. For example, some national herring (and carp) recipes go back to the Ashkenazi Jew cuisine and to when the Jews, in the 17th century, were banished from Germany and found shelter in the Netherlands.
It is hard to encounter a source of livelihood for men superior to the herring.
Tasty, nourishing, and with pleasant consistency, they can grill, boil and fry it. Furthermore, it is particularly apt to vinegar or salt preserve or smoked.
Herring is by far the most significant fish in human history. Among all European foodstuffs, it is on par with potatoes and wheat. For all these reasons, and the shiny grey colour of its scales, it is known as the silver of the sea.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, fishermen of the North Sea did not fish but herrings. With the growth of the demand from monasteries and cities, the preservation of herring became as noteworthy as its fishing. The most abundant fishing sea for herrings is near Scotland and England’s coasts and its convenient sandy rivers and protected coves. They could bring the fish on land and work it straight away. It meant that these fish were strictly associated with the desiccation structures, to salt and kippering.
Medieval herrings, strongly salted, were loathed by poor people, seamen and soldiers who received them in their rations. The fish was dried, stiff, with no flavour or rancid, while cod and its kins, such as hake, ling and pollack, have white meat with a delicate taste and little fat. Historically, cod was widespread because they could easily conserve it as a portable food supply for seamen and soldiers, in addition to its abundance.
Before the introduction of refrigeration, few people ate fresh cod. The food they ate during holiday obligation and Lenten were wind-dried or salted cod, served one day after another with monotonous regularity. Skilled cooks could make miracles by seasoning the fish with spices and savoury vegetables, but most people ate simple and boiled cod fillets. Today, on the other hand, Portuguese cuisine boasts hundreds of bacalhau (salted cod) recipes.
Many other sea fish appeared on Medieval tables: among these, salmon, easy to dry and salt; the European conger, with its thick meat often used in soups; plaice, sole and other flatfishes, but the herring and cod were basic food.
Drying, salting, and smoking are traditional methods for preserving fish. Also, sugar and vinegar – in addition to herbs and spices – can have the same effect. Fermentation, if carefully controlled, can stop decay. Drying is the most ancient preserving technique of them all. It works well in dry and windy climates, such as on the archipelago of Lofoten in Norway. They desiccate the less oily species, such as codfish. Drying was generally not feasible in the Baltic regions and around the North Sea, where it rains in abundance and summers are highly humid.
Basque whalers preserved the whale meat they hunted using salt obtained through evaporation along Portuguese and Spanish estuaries. Norwegian raiders seized some saltworks and developed a profitable trade with the ports along the English Channel.
Northern Europe was too cold and humid for the production, at any degree, of salt by evaporation of the seawater.
In the 8th century, North Sea fishermen piled up salted herring on the beach or put it on racks to dry, alternating each layer of fish with a layer of salt. They selected coarse salt, as the large crystals slowly dissolved as they penetrated the fish. After a fortnight, the herrings received a new treatment. Drying is more effective with cod than with an oily fish like herring. The high-fat content of herring in autumn reduced the salt absorption, thus making it possible to transport them only over short distances.
Another method was brine: it involved herring immersed in a solution of salt dissolved in water. No one knows when brine first came into use, but it likely originated in the Baltic region, where salt and fish were abundant as early as the 11th century. Brine combined salting and a barreled brine solution, a method that had the advantage of keeping the maximum salt content around the fish. The submersion of herring in brine prevents its fat from coming into contact with the oxygen and, therefore, from becoming rancid. Until the 14th century, they brined herring whole. Subsequently, they first eviscerated them for better conservation. By keeping the herring in brine barrels, the fish could remain edible for up to ten months (even more if the outside temperature was below 10 degrees). People continued to adopt this preservation system until the beginning of the 20th century.
Brine is unnecessary for white fish, such as cod, for its low oil content. Therefore, its production costs were much lower.
They could not store smoked fish for a long time. Generally, they adopted smoking in combination with drying or salting in both domestic and industrial environments. The temperature and density of the smoke, as the wood employed, varied according to the type of fish to preserve. They could transport heavily smoked fish considerable distances, while those smoked with lighter smoke only became popular with the advent of the railway many centuries later.
Atlantic cod, introduced in Europe as a stockfish only a century earlier by sailors-soldiers from the North, was about to enter a period of phenomenal success around the year 1000. Fishermen from the Baltic and North Seas had always caught a different fish, plundering the immense schools of herring that migrated south to reproduce in late summer and autumn. The Baltic fishermen had meanwhile developed new salting methods. Within a century, herring had become big business in the booming cities of an increasingly Christianized Europe.
The herring trade began along the Baltic coast in the Netherlands and eastern England, where protected estuaries and small waterways provided links with communities far inland. Fishermen often avoided official harbours and tax collectors of tithes.
Earlier, fishermen rarely left the shore for more than 50 km, and people ate all the fish along the coast. Until the year thousand, the only fish eaten away from the sea were freshwater fish, mainly eels. Then, all of a sudden, a large number of herring appeared also in cities far away from the ocean. Codfish was almost unknown inland. Norman stockfish was still a sailor’s food and confined to vessels. The only fish they could get in large quantity was herring and sardines. Until they conceived the salting method, even cod, even if plentiful, could not travel much distance.
The small herring of the Atlantic became the principal food for the coastal communities of the North Sea. They fished it already in the Bronze Age, and the Roman garrison along the River Thames ate thousands of herrings. Roman fish traders in Utrecht sold marinated herrings and fish sauce with great profit. Nonetheless, salted herrings did not travel much until the X century. Herrings were one of the reasons why they built cargo ships with greater load capacity.
Fishing for herring in the North Sea used to be the easiest thing in the world. Their conservation and transport became possible only with adequate salting. During the 9th century, the Vikings drove deep into Normandy and Brittany, seized the monks’ salt marshes of the Bay of Biscay and assumed control of the saltworks at the mouth of the River Loire.
In Stockholm, they ate fresh frozen fish in winter, but pike, perch, and other freshwater dried and salted fish were commercially more noteworthy. Baltic herring provided livelihoods for thousands of people. The salt often came from salt mines in northern Germany, exploited since prehistoric times.
The new process allowed to store the fish for up to a year. The mass production of salted herring became a reality for the first time. Even inland cities could regularly consume fish hooked in the Baltic.
Herring, as a solution for Lent, probably first established itself in begging shelters and urban hospitals. It was a modest food and less tempting than cod. But fish had then become readily available food, and many Northern European cities thrived on herring fishing. Like eels, herring became a form of current money used to pay rent and taxes. In the post-thousand period, the herring trade experienced a quick expansion to meet the growing demand from urban populations, especially during abstinence and fasting times. Fish was the daily food for millions of people, vital for feats of obligation and during Lent. They ate only a tiny fraction of the herring caught fresh. Cod, salmon and conger could be transported to the inner cities wrapped in wet cloth or straw, but that was impossible for herrings.
Fresh porpoise was also a highly prized food for nobles and royalty. The religious inside monasteries and abbeys near the main ports regularly ate fresh fish, even sturgeon, served on special occasions. Rich fish dishes had become a way of proclaiming rank and wealth. However, the herring had no social prestige and remained food for novice monks, soldiers, poor and ordinary people. It was, together with eel, a trade good that was part of the money circulating in everyday life; they used it in donations to feed armies, pay taxes or get married. Herring sold much more than stockfish or cod.
Thanks to the ecclesiastical calendar, the increase in the number of soldiers in the armies and the new conservation methods by salting, fishing became highly profitable for the merchants. What had once been something of a family business grew into a vast enterprise. The herring had become part of the fabric of European society. They often say that herring is one of those products whose use changed the fate of empires, with a growing demand for fish to feed armies and urban poor and the scarcity of freshwater fish. The herring thus became the staple food of large sections of the population.
Paradise and hell: cod fishing
Like herring, cod is also one of the world’s great foods. The vastest area for cod fishing in Northern Europe is around Vestfjord and the Lofoten islands. These are the perfect places for the drying of the cod. The fishing area of the Lofoten, used since prehistory, contributed to a flourishing exchange between dried fish and Southern European cereals. Fish drying continues nowadays. The climate of the Lofoten is ideal for cod meat desiccation. The meat dries up gradually without rotting. This slow process keeps all the aromas in the fish. Stockfish is (and was) the preserved food ideal for people who do not have any ice or a refrigerator available. It does not weigh much and can be stored, transported, and loaded efficiently. It is nutritious. Kept appropriately in a dry place, it can last for five years or more. War and mercantile ships of the Vikings of the VIII century developed thanks to the tradition of cod fishing. Norse sailors travelled length thanks to their stockfish.
They were skilled sailors from a young age. They knew the currents and the tides and could estimate the sea depth from its colour and the shape of the waves. They were experts in observing the sun and the stars, the habits of sea birds, migrating geese, herring and codfish. They possessed a tradition of coastal trips, which had started before the Roman era.
At the end of the IX and X century, the Normans moved out from their land, conducting raids in the Nort Sea. They had already started navigating offshore with bigger ships that could withstand adverse sea conditions. Their expansion brought the northern peoples into conflict with most of Western Europe and carried them much further than the Western horizon, unexplored until then.
Scandinavian merchants were already active in Northern Europe, the Lowlands and Central Asia.
Viking raids started when Europe enjoyed a warmer climate after four centuries of cold and rainy summers. Perhaps, milder winters, less vast ice packs and a lengthy season, which helped the growth of cereals, may have coincided with a sudden rise of the Scandinavian population, which had no sufficient land left. In the same period, Scandinavians developed new navigation skills. Following economic and political changes in Lofoten and Vesterålen, many young men and their children sailed the North Sea for faraway shores, going south with plenty of stockfish provisions.
The advancement in navigation helped, for the first time, European sailors to move away from the coast towards England, Ireland, Scotland and its islands, Northern France, Portugal, the Balearic Islands and the Western Mediterranean. Old Norse expanded in all boreal islands from the Orkneys to Shetland, Fær Øer to the Hebrides to Iceland, Greenland, Southern Labrador and Newfoundland. The Atlantic codfish was the exchange currency and daily food, abundant and easy to transport.
Stockfish was a warranty against sea storms, late shipping and shipwrecks. The Normans were the first who treated fish as goods. They used it as money to pay debts, give presents and obtain, in return, prestigious luxury objects. Nonetheless, they ate most of this fish. In Norman society, the Atlantic codfish became the protagonist as meaningful as the men and ship that reached North America several centuries before Cabot and Columbus.
The Hanseatic League and the new quality standards
Herring and Norwegian stockfish joined other usually traded commodities, commencing in Scania and then the cities of the Hanseatic League.
The merchants of the Hansa controlled much of the herring trade with prominent efficiency and considerably improved the quality of the commodity. New navigation systems made it possible to satisfy the growing demand for salted herring and stockfish. To these was added a tremendous abundance of good quality salt.
The Hanseatic League imposed a sort of standardization of the marketed product to ensure constant quality.
Herring, thus, arrived on the tables of all of Europe up to the Mediterranean countries.
Gradually herring disappeared from the menus of the monasteries as they stayed to feed the poor people and soldiers. They ate herring as a biscuit but more often combined with broths or stews. In the wealthiest households, people ate it, making it more appetizing, with mustard, but plebeians had to make do with bread and salted herring. Military rations were also standardized. Preserved herring was the cheapest fish to fulfil the obligation to eat fish on Fridays and during Lent.
The fishing grounds enjoyed glorious years, but the catch then declined rapidly, only partially recovering to drop again, perhaps due to changes in sea temperatures. Annual herring migrations subsided. Competition for fishing rights became fierce. The demand for herring dropped significantly.
The vast shoals of herring that flocked to the North Sea each autumn became more unpredictable, varying from year to year.
The herring trade was born from religious devotion, but herring became the essential food for poor people and soldiers. The trade growth and herring fishing depended on technological innovations. The system to supply the tables (mainly the rich and monasteries) with fresh fish was to develop fish breeding. Well-known by the Romans of the Imperial Age, they improved fish farming with the technique used in water mills. The water received more oxygen helping breeds of new fish species inside natural or artificial ponds. Fish farms limited to breams or pikes met a notable diffusion with the introduction of carp. Fish ponds became highly profitable. The fish meat became finer. Carps were food for the rich and religious people, not for the populace.
Aquaculture ponds created severe environmental consequences, creating insect-infested wetlands. More, carp-populated lakes and streams, competing with the local fauna, while marshes made malaria endemic.
Seafood appeared on the tables in increased amounts. Freshwater fish were served at parties and presented to diners as signs of wealth and power.
Fish consumption in Western Europe shifted from carp and herring to white fish, such as hake and cod.
As herring migrations decreased and consumer tastes changed, cod and other fish displaced the herring in the market. Codfish, with its much milder flavour, had become the favourite fish on aristocratic and monastic tables as a staple food for armies.
Much of the fish trade around the fourteenth century consisted of stockfish and salted cod in various forms, mostly caught off northern Norway or in Icelandic waters. The Hanseatic League also gained control of the cod business. But even this business experienced fluctuations.
The switch to cod was no mere coincidence. The diet of both monasteries and people had become more varied, and holidays alternated with long periods of fasting, hardened by the payment of taxes and tithe.
Salted herring posed an extraordinary challenge to even the most experienced cooks, who concocted ingenious condiments to cover the taste of the dried fish. In addition to mustard, they used dried figs, raisins, and almonds.
Talented chefs, with fresh fish at their disposal, could prepare it with multifarious sauces. They used up to 65 different types of seafood in the kitchens of some abbeys.
When fish consumption reached a fever pitch in the West during the 14th century, the laws of supply and demand came into play, causing North Sea and Western fishermen to venture further afield in search of new fishing grounds.
After the Hanseatic League, the herring fishing and trading monopoly passed into Dutch hands. With the decline of the Scanian fishing area, they became experts in managing the North Sea herring market at a remarkably high-quality level.
The demand for all kinds of fish was inexhaustible, not only for Lent and holidays but also for armies and navies. Dried or salted cod was easier to preserve and guaranteed more secure annual returns than herring. The reproduction of herrings could present striking fluctuations from one year to the next, as well as incomprehensible variations of the fish’s route.
The shortage of freshwater fish for Lent helped to trigger a massive expansion in the consumption of herring, the trade of which fell under the strict monopolies of Hansa. They forced English fishermen to seek new fishing grounds further away, off the coast of Iceland, already known for its stockfish. They built new vessels that could withstand the severe winter storms of the North Atlantic.
Their gestures, which remained unchanged for centuries, are described in the opening pages, full of poetry, of Heaven and Hell by the Icelandic writer Jon Kalman Stefánsson. ‘They built almost all the urban agglomerations of Iceland with cod fishbones: they are the pillars that hold up the vaults of dreams.’
Fishing away from home requested a distinct ship apt to transport food and provisions for an entire season, including large amounts of salt to preserve the fish. The crew, 4-5 men and 2-3 young boys, caught cod with fishhooks and fishing line, capturing hundreds in a single day.
Codfish became basic food for European lives, so much so that they regarded it as the beef of the sea. Men and youngsters went through a great deal of trouble to fish it. Protected only by wool and leather clothes, often beaten by icy splashes and waves, they operated under all weather conditions, knowing that death could arrive at any time.
When Iceland renounced its sovereignty to Norway, exportations from the island travelled on Norse ships. Dried codfish overcame homemade fabrics as prevalent exportation.
The stockfish market grew considerably when the Hanseatic League extended its monopoly on the Baltic and North Sea trade to Bergen. Even if herring was still the main fish traded, the volume of Norwegian cod exportation rocketed year after year, and demand hit the stars.
Norsemen started to fish and work cod, specifically for exportation. Bergen became the port of the Hanseatic League, which controlled all sides of the fish trade.
They explicitly prohibited foreign ships from direct engagement in commerce with Iceland or any other Norse dependence. All loads needed to pass via Bergen and be taxed by the Hanse.
Consequently to the high demand, the Hanse was forced to find new sources of supply in the Shetland and Fær Øer. In Iceland and Fær Øer, fishing was an activity limited to the winter season, while they often conducted it at a delimited distance. Icelandic waters were rich in cod. After its handover to Norway, the island received from this country some supply ships. With the passage of Bergen to the Hanseatic League, they suppressed such privilege and cut Icelanders out of trade.
When they also cut the English out of the Bengen market, they were affected by the decline of herring fishing, so the English pointed at Icelandic stockfish, venturing in uncertain navigation in the open sea and not along the coast.
Iceland was so isolated that neither Norway at first nor Denmark later could effectively preside over it. Icelanders did not have a motive for conflict with the English as long as they acted correctly. The source of contrast rose with the collection of taxes owed to Icelander officials. Often the British behaved like colonizers carrying out pirate raids. However, the fishing area of Iceland became a well-organized centre of economic activity. The Hanseatic League, aware of English trade, began to pay more attention to Iceland. When contrasts between Denmark and England intensified, the Hanse took advantage by considerably increasing its traffic with the island, especially from German ports.
The cod fishery in Iceland took on enormous proportions, although, for unknown reasons, cod shipments from Iceland declined rapidly. New taxes and religious sensibility undermined the cod trade and fishing activity. The arrival of a novel salt tax also reduced the number of men previously employed to fish in Icelandic waters. Only many centuries later did a new thriving fishery around Iceland begin.
Chasing codfish: towards Hy-Brasil at the discovery of the New World
The discovery of America dates to an earlier time than Columbus. It is linked to the transformations that occurred in Europe with the diffusion of Christianity, the relation between economic needs and climate changes and generations after generations of fishermen who explored the North of the Atlantic centuries before Columbus and Cabot.
The church precept not to eat meat on Friday fueled demand for fish, which local resources could not satisfy, and spurred technological innovation in shipbuilding and fish preservation.
When the climatic changes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries reduced the fish supplies of Norway and Iceland, fishermen found themselves forced to push further west until they anchored on new land. There they began to build settlements and outposts along the coasts, so much so that, a couple of centuries later, they were able to help a colony of Pilgrim Fathers survive their first winter in the new world.
The cod “is at ease” between mythology, medieval religiosity, naval engineering, history of trade, and climate.
The city of Bristol took a primary role in the trade between the English hinterland, the North Sea, France, Spain and Portugal. Most of the fish exchanged came from South-West Ireland. The Irish Sea waters and the English Channel teemed with sardines and hake. The hake caught here assumed extraordinary commercial significance. Its white, lean meat can be comfortably dried and salted. It soon became a primary commodity in the West. Fresh hake and salted hake also contributed significantly to tithes for the church. Bristol became a considerable player in the Lenten fish demand in domestic and export markets. Dried fish was the ideal commodity.
Sardine became a necessary commodity sometime later. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, merchants exported it on a large scale. New processing methods helped conserve it for transport. Canned sardines became popular in the Mediterranean area, lasting longer than the North Sea herring and requiring less salt to preserve it. The oil obtained during processing was a secondary product used for cooking, lighting and tanning.
Most of Bristol’s fish came from the hake fishing grounds of Cornwall and the south coast of Ireland (herring was also plentiful in this region). Almost all the fish caught in Iceland landed in Bristol. Bristol’s commercial tentacles extended into France, Spain and even the Mediterranean. The fish that passed through the harbour were more than sufficient for local needs; surpluses supplied armies, warships and the growing markets further south. Fishermen reached as far as the northern coast of Norway. Bristol and South West England were now the country’s top fish exporters. This area was at a favoured distance in relation to the lucrative French and Spanish markets and within a few sailing days from the saltworks of the Bay of Biscay. At the same time, returns from the cloth trades and tin mining, combined with a thriving agricultural economy, provided capital to finance fishing expeditions to Iceland and further west into the western ocean in search of new lands, fabled by countless sailors from distant ports. More robust ships allowed exploration not for new fishing grounds but for a route to the spices and gold of Asia. The lure of immense wealth fueled deep curiosity about the western ocean and the voyages of Columbus and Cabot. The large-scale exploitation and colonization of the Americas by Europeans began.
But perhaps the legend of the Isle of the Blessed or Hy-Brasil had also led to earlier unrecorded voyages. We know of the Viking travels towards the end of the 10th century to Greenland, Newfoundland and Labrador. The tale of westward journeys survived only in Icelandic sagas, but these legends of distant western lands fostered the men’s thirst for discovery.
Sure, – after the Vikings and before Columbus and Cabot – new technologies and innovative designs took sailors out to sea seeking riches. To this must be added an often overlooked economic reality: the constant search for new backdrops to feed armies and faithful. Maybe the first explorers were the Basques, expert navigators and shipbuilders, and whalers, much in demand during Lent and for the payment of tithes. The Basques, who got to know the stockfish thanks to contacts with the Norwegians, experts in the conservation of whale meat, began to dry and salt the cod, which allowed them to go much further north in search of whales up to Iceland, Norway, the Hebrides and the Fær Øer. The Basques would be fishing and whaling in North America long before Cabot arrived. But their arrival in Newfoundland is a myth with no proof. The English, not the Basques, learnt about the northern seas in the 15th century. They had come to Iceland after generations of fishing in the North Sea and Ireland. Their captains, supported by the wealth of the merchants, used to travel to Ireland and knew the existence of Greenland, the winds and the expeditions of the Vikings. It is, therefore, very likely that ships from Bristol made sporadic voyages to Newfoundland, bringing back the salted cod. Trawlers arriving in Newfoundland discovered an unfamiliar fishing ground rich in large cod. Financial merchants have never released the news. They never exploited this fishing area to considerable results, but it made it possible to pay off the travel expenses in search of Asia and its treasures.
The knowledge acquired during these voyages was handed down confidentially from generation to generation, with a route from western Ireland that headed north to Iceland, where it took advantage of the prevailing winds to sail to Greenland.
A competition for cod had developed off Iceland, and British ships may have headed west in search of fish off the western territories. The British began trading stockfish and whale oil for clothing and other goods. The dried cod was processed on land by the Greenlanders and not by the British. Goods from Greenland could be mistaken for those in transit at Bristol without attracting the attention of tax collectors.
Presumably, these hypotheses collide with the intensification of the cold around the mid-fifteenth century, making navigation between Iceland and Greenland very critical.
New research would suggest that fish was of no importance in Norwegian society settled in Greenland due to a shortage of boats in a country with no timber, few materials for making lines or nets and a dietary preference for marine mammals, which are fatter than fish. In Iceland, cod fishing is a winter activity, like stockfish production. In Greenland, both fishing and drying cod are impossible in winter. In the summer, fishing was supposed to compete with the needs of agriculture and hunting.
The harsh cold almost led to the paralysis of Norwegian colonies in Greenland. Travelling further south was less rewarding, as it did not bring either gold or cod.
Maybe Bristol’s ships may have found their Brasil, not an island of fabulous riches, but a place where the amount of cod went beyond any imagination. Past that prosperity, there could be a route to Asia, but a hold full of cod guaranteed profit, even if it did not have the allure of spice and precious metals. Conceivably, travels stopped in Newfoundland and its nearby coasts, an island perhaps less magnificent than the legendary Brasil but with a high payoff. Codfish attracted ships from Bristol towards the open sea, and the knowledge acquired by sailors fuelled legends on the “Island of Brasil”. Travels directed to Newfoundland would have never happened without the fishing expertise of generations sailing the Atlantic Ocean, away from Ireland and Iceland.
They estimate that the discovery of schools of cod in Newfoundland in sixteenth and seventieth-century Europe was as significant as the silver and gold trade for the Spanish Empire.
Ships in Bristol commerced in wine, wool, herrings, and cod for Lent. They arrived from seas rich in codfish in front of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The religious doctrine may have boosted the expansion of the international fish trade, but needing to supply stockfish to use as crackers for the army and ship crews became a critical sector for the fish industry. As the Norse had uncovered centuries before, stockfish was light and easily squeezed in small spaces. They could preserve it in humid tropical climates; it was economical, easy to load, and had a pleasant flavour. They imported fish in England and without being subject to tax from Iceland, Ireland, the Scottish islands and Newfoundland. Over the centuries, after Cabot’s trip, contended cod fishing areas of Newfoundland would generate in Europe more profit than all the gold from the Indies.
Newfoundland’s fishing area was just another piece in a complex patchwork of fishing grounds that fed the faithful, the poor, and the military. Newfoundland played a noteworthy role in the economic, political and social forces that shaped the European seafood market. It was not a new land but an extension of the old one.
Newfoundland always remained a natural extension of the fishing grounds of Iceland and Ireland. All fishing activity had no economic impact on Newfoundland, on which there was no permanent European settlement.
The growth of the cod industry happened in the mid-XVI century. A new balance of powers had emerged in Europe, where the prevalent conflict was now between Protestants in the North and Catholics in the South. The English Navy was on the rise, while the Spanish Navy was in decline. In Protestant countries, the people did not rigorously follow Catholic doctrine, including its dietary obligations. Salted herrings and stockfish remained vital food for soldiers, sailors, and cargo vessels.
In Elizabethan England, they imposed the fish days to boost the fishing industry. People’s consumption was shifting from fish to meat, but that wasn’t enough to kill the cod trade. England now exported nearly all of its lightly salted dried cod to the Catholic countries of the south. Cod and herring were also in demand in Spain and Portugal as an option for much more expensive meat.
The fishing activity became more efficient, and the trawlers acquired larger dimensions. They still practised fishing with medieval technology in many lands, which persisted into the 20th century. As Newfoundland supplied the army and navy, it had become an invaluable strategic asset and was entirely under British rule.
A few fishing vessels from various nations sailed south of Newfoundland following the coasts. Perhaps even before Verrazano, they moved slowly through the shallows off the coast. Cod fishing grounds in Maine and New England lay unused until the early 17th century. In these areas, cod could be fished and processed almost at any time of the year. The first permanent settlement in New England was not that of the Pilgrim Fathers but a series of fishing and trading posts along the coast of Maine.
As a result of the English Civil War, Newfoundland’s fishing grounds declined.
Colonizers of New England needed food. If the Puritans, in the beginning, resorted to migrating fishermen, they afterwards took their first steps towards a fishing activity practised by residential fishermen. Over time the Puritan influence weakened, and a growing number of fishermen established themselves permanently in the colony.
Cod brought great wealth and became one of the main pillars of the colonial economy. Merchants of New England entered the triangular trade among the Atlantic, Europe and North America with goods, luxury and subtropical products, financing joint ventures among themselves for their transportation. A generation later, after the landing of the pilgrim fathers, the fish trade in New England became a pillar in the world economy. Profits from cod and commercial relations from its maritime expedition led to the request for other products, such as wood and whale oil. New England was steadily becoming an independent trade power. They sent fish to the Canaries and carried tobacco and cotton in Barbados in exchange for African slaves from Cape Verde. New England was always interested in trade with the West Indies, where they traded scrap salted cod of mediocre quality (often spoiled) but considered an ideal food for the slaves in the sugar plantations of the Barbados islands. Nourished by fish commerce and associated exchanges, trade centres in New England thrived.
England played a pivotal role in such business, whose starting point remained the most ancient trade of all: the fish trade the Catholics requested to fulfil their religious observances. Apart from quality issues, fluctuating prices and fortuitous surplus, New England became the main protagonist of the international fish trade, prospering until modern times, adopting the almost unchanged methods started in the Middle Ages.
Fishing activity occurred far from the magnifying lens of history, a temporal reality, an exchange with no end with the harsh reality of the fierce ocean. Fishermen kept on having a role through the slow generational transformation of the religious doctrine and the more rapid flows and ebbs of demand and offer. History changed course, and people had to continue eating and facing pious teachings. Herring and cod fishermen went to sea every night and cast the nets or hooks with an unchanged routine. The fishermen who supplied fish to the devotees were part of the obscure background of the story. But their anonymous labours were the vanguard of European expansion. It was not the inspiration of famous characters, not the various Columbuses, Cabots or the Pilgrim Fathers that brought Europeans to North America, but the thousand-year journey in pursuit of fish.