Lenten fish

I’ll do another entry on Lent and fasting. It’s worth just talking about fish.

Some fish came from ponds and were probably fresh.

Monasteries knew in advance that they’d be fasting for every possible fast day year round, so they put a lot of effort into growing fish. Some monasteries figured out that letting their sewage flush into the fish pond was actually good for the fish. (They tried to build over a stream that could carry water in and sewage out, and then they dammed it for the fish.) Mill ponds were great for eels, too. The miller’s landlord often asked for eels as part of the rent. Eels could be found in streams and lakes, too. Peasants could spear or trap them. But they rarely ate eels; the cash value was too great. The cash value of a five-foot carp was so great that many entrepreneurs invested in long-term fish ponds to raise these Danube River invaders. It took about five years for a carp to grow to table length, but then the Abbot or Baron would pay a lot.

By far most Lenten fish were not at all fresh. They were either dried or salted/pickled. The fish preserving industry was one of the largest enterprises of its time.

Cod came from the far north Atlantic, including Canada. Basque fishermen were shopping the cod banks near the St. Lawrence River without disclosing that they’d found a New World. You know how fishermen are. Cod also came from Iceland and all around Norway. It was most often flayed and then hung to dry in the cold wind. Prepared this way, it was called stockfish, with “stock” referring to wood. Cod stockfish were sometimes smoked, and frequently salted. When caught at sea, they were usually salted so that they would not spoil during the two weeks the ship stayed out. Stockfish had to be soaked for a long time, sometimes with many changes of water to remove salt, and pounded hard with a hammer to make it edible. It was tasteless, once reconstituted. Cooks had to find ways to season or fry it, but stockfish was never very good.

Herring came from the north Atlantic and the Baltic. The cities along the Baltic joined in a compact for dominating the herring industry; some made salt, some made barrels, some employed thousands of peasant women gutting several herring per minute. The herring were packed firmly in salt and the barrels closed tightly. Ships were specially built to accommodate as many barrels as possible. The Hanse (“the League”) made monopoly deals with various ports so that they would bar other traders. They also policed the northern seas for pirates, keeping shipping lanes open.

Herring was salty. Monks ate so much herring, it was penance just to swallow another one. More creative cooks soaked it to remove some of the salt, and made it into other dishes, but all too often, the poor saw herring simply sitting there, looking back at them in all their salty glory, next to a piece of rough bread. Still, herring was the only preserved convenience food they had. Armies bought barrels and barrels of the stuff, as did monasteries.

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