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A fish tale: the history of the cod

The Story

For centuries the Atlantic cod was a prized underwater currency that helped build nations, feed millions and stir global conflict. Historians believe the Vikings in the 10th century were the first Europeans to set bait for the treasured commodity in the well-populated shores off the coast of Newfoundland. In this CBC Radio clip Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, recounts a peculiar fish tale that hearkens back to the Vikings, the Basques and eventually to a young country named Canada.  

Medium: Radio
Program: Summerside
Broadcast Date: June 24, 1997
Guest: Mark Kurlansky
Interviewer: Tom Allen
Duration: 9:44
"Fishing in the northern ocean in the late Middle Ages (detail)" Courtesy Musée Stewart/ Stewart Museum Montréal)

Did You know?

• Cod is a ground fish that lives and feeds off shallow ocean banks around the world. Although there are hundreds of known species (including Alaska's little-known Pacific cod) it is the Atlantic variety, or Gadus morhua, which is best known to fish lovers around the world.

• Cod is also known as codfish, rock cod, scrod, ovak and uugak.

• The Atlantic cod, which can range in size from four kilograms to upwards of 100 kilograms, rose to fame thanks to its peerless white flesh, which is almost fat-free and boasts a flaky texture when cooked. The northern stock of Atlantic cod has been fished for centuries and helped sustain communities from Iceland and Newfoundland to New England.

• The Atlantic cod is known for its heavy body, large head (which makes up one quarter of its length), five fins (three on top, two below) and blunt tail fin. Brownish in appearance, it boasts orange spots and a black stripe that runs the length of its body.

• Its other outstanding feature is an unsightly appendage that hangs from its lower lip. It's believed that this helps the fish navigate its way along the ocean floor.

• Many history books boast the fact that John Cabot was the first European to stumble upon North America's rich cod stocks during his 1497 trip.

• But as Kurlansky points out in this CBC Summerside interview, Vikings led by Leif Eiriksson survived on cod during their explorations of Newfoundland and Labrador around the year 1000.

• Historians believe the Vikings caught the cod and then dried it aboard their ships.

• Some 200 years after the Vikings rummaged up and down the coast, fishermen from the Spanish Basque culture began secretly fishing for cod to sell throughout Europe.

• The Basques preserved their catch for the long trip home by drying it and then salting it.

• In this salt-cured form, cod could be stored for several years and provided a much-needed supply of protein for hundreds of thousands of Europeans. It was eaten dry or soaked overnight in water.

• The Basque trade in salt cod was perfectly timed. In the 12th century, the medieval Catholic Church imposed more than 150 meatless days a year. As a result many poor Catholics subsisted on Basque salt cod during these days.

• In his definitive 1938 book The Cod Fisheries, Canadian academic Harold Innis noted that "as a protein commodity [cod] has been called 'the beef of the sea.'"

• Kurlansky talks of cod being "bigger than men," a comment backed up by numerous archival photos and fishermen's journals. In 1895 in Massachusetts a fisherman recorded catching a cod that was almost 2 metres (six feet) long and weighed almost 96 kg (211 pounds).

Around the same time, a cod that weighed 46 kg (102 pounds) and measured 168 cm (five feet six inches) long was caught on the Labrador coast.

• Kurlansky, a cod historian and one-time chef, spent time working as a commercial fisherman during his youth in a New England fishing town.

• His offbeat history of the cod fishery proved an unlikely bestseller, and received the 1997 James Beard Award for Excellence in Food Writing.

He is also the author of The Basque History of the World, Salt: A History of the World and 1968: The Year That Rocked the World.


Fished Out: The Rise and Fall of the Cod Fishery more