Why do we eat so much codfish?

Morue d'AtlantiqueCod is very present in the Martinican diet. It is often eaten with our "lédjim péi", in chiquetaille, with dombrés, in acras (cod fritters), in gratin or even our féroce d'avocat (appetizer with avocado and cassava flour). But why do we eat so much cod when it is not a fish endemic to the Lesser Antilles?

The history of cod in Martinique dates back to slavery. Fishing itself dates back several centuries. Cod is a French word used to group together fish from several species of the Gadiformes, bony fish with radiated fins that include ten families. These fish live exclusively in cold water in high parts of the globe. Norwegians have been fishing it since the 11th century. Later it was the Germans, Danes, English, and Dutch who were interested in this “white gold.” France has been interested in cod from the 13th century from its ports in Upper Normandy to fish from the North Sea and then around Iceland.

During the explorations in the American zone, an Italian explorer, Giovanni Caboto, called Jean Cabot in France, who worked in the service of the Crown of England, approached the coasts of the island of Newfoundland, a large island located in proximity to Canada and Saint-Pierre et Miquelon in 1497. In his travel notes, he was amazed by the quantity of cod found there. He declares that "the quantity of cod around the island is so important that it was enough to plunge a bucket in the water to catch it."

Morue poissonAfter reports from Jean Cabot, the Portuguese, Spanish, French and English rushed to the coast of Newfoundland to fish for cod. The Basques and the Bretons had already got down to cod fishing in the area. At the time cod was not a noble dish. It was a fish reserved for the less fortunate population at the time when salmon was present to them on the banquet tables.

When the European colonists settle in the Caribbean, they have little knowledge of the agricultural and fish resources present in the islands. Their food adaptation is very difficult and even if the Caribbean Indians and Arawaks initiate them and give them their knowledge about the fruits and vegetables of the island, they nevertheless prefer to turn to Europe to deliver the food they had the habit of eating.

Cod, which was a fish reserved for "mass populations" in Europe, has many advantages for introducing it into the colonies:

  • It can be stored easily (several months) by being dried and salted,
  • It is fished near the islands of the Caribbean, in North America to Newfoundland where it is found in abundance,
  • It is a source of protein that can integrate the diet of slaves during the Lenten fast.
  • Since cod is not a noble food, its cost is very low.

From 1520, Europeans settled in Newfoundland to set up fishing camps in the area. The battles between English and French to acquire this island are numerous. It is a stake to own the island which provided a good part of the food of the slaves. For several centuries, Newfoundland has been a place of intensive cod fishing.

Morue salée et séchéeOnce caught, the cod is gutted, the bone removed and it is lightly salted to extract the water. It is then rinsed and left to dry for about fifteen days in the wind and sun, this method gave a finer taste. Millions of tonnes of cod crossed the Atlantic every year for Portugal and Spain.

Once unloaded in Europe, the ships took a cargo of European merchandise and headed for the West Indies to bring the material necessary for the harvest of the sugar cane. When they arrived in the West Indies, they emptied the ships of their cargo, including inexpensive “low-end” cod to feed the slaves whose hard work on the plantations required a good supply of protein and salt.

Thus, cod quickly enters the diet of slaves. The ration he had to eat will even be defined later in the Code Noir, the book governing slavery in the French colonies. It was written that cod had to be eaten alternately with salted meat, but the latter, which was much more expensive, was rarely found on the latter's "plate". As the local government at the time could not verify the application of this measure, some slaves were sometimes condemned to eat only cod.

At the end of slavery, cod continued to arrive on the plates of the new freemen and of the Indians and Kongos who came to work in the fields of the island.

Acras de morueToday cod continues to be a major part of the Martinican diet. However, the cod that we find on our plate comes mostly from Norway and more from Newfoundland than before. This is due to questions of trade agreements in force in the European Union. It is usually found sold in plastic packaging already dried and salted, most often in large pieces or otherwise crumbled. Nowadays with a gastronomy much more enhanced, cod is perceived more as part of the gastronomic heritage than as a simple food reserved for former slaves. So are you more of chiquetaille? macadam? tinin lanmori? acras? dombrés ou féroce d'avocat?