In preparation for my next research trip to Portugal, I’ve begun to map salt products in Brixton market. I found 8 shops/stalls selling a wide variety of salt fish products, although the Deli where Jose had talked about the saltfish trade loop had closed for the summer.
According to Mark Kurlansky, the salt cod trade meant huge growth for Portuguese fishing and saltmaking. Sites in Aveiro had been producing salt for centuries, but new saltworks in Setubal became leading suppliers after the 1500s when European exploration overseas headed West to the Americas. According to Deli owner Jose, the saltfish was essential to the long sea voyages which enabled the explorers and later colonisers to travel.
Ironically now it is both a national dish in Portugal and a traditional favourite of African Caribbean communities in the UK, communities that have migrant roots intrinsically linked to those of the colonisers.
Sugar is often written about in connection with the slave trade, but the place of salt in global trade and migration has been less visible, perhaps because over centuries its value has diminished.
I was interested to discover that the companies producing the saltfish for sale in the market seemed to be based mainly in Grimsby and Hull, which was once the main portal of immigration for millions of eastern europeans, mainly Jews.
Other producers of saltfish I could find seemed to be based in China, Iceland and Norway. Therefore mapping the routes that this fish goes on before it arrives in the market is getting more complicated. Added to that, Jose said some of his customers take the salt cod they buy in Brixton back to Jamaica as they like its quality. So the saltfish travels even further today than in centuries past.
I went to eat Bacalau in nearby Little Portugal (Stockwell) and talked to Catarina, a Portuguese friend and Estefani, a Spanish friend from Galicia, Northern Spain. Bacalau is made with salt cod and while eating it Catarina told me about visiting a very old saltworks in Rio Maior and talking to a man who’d been working there all his life. But after my day trawling the market, I wonder how much saltfish is imported to Portugal today from China.