While in other parts of the world, including the US, fresh cod is a typical part of the cuisine, in the Basque Country, and especially Bilbao, it is dried and salted or just salt cod that reigns supreme. Produced for hundreds of years, the drying and salting of cod was an effective way of preserving the cod caught in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland before being transported across the Atlantic for sale in Europe.
But the story of how salt cod came to be so popular in Bilbao is particularly illuminating. In 1824 the Spanish government established state control of this important food source with all imports subject to strict controls. Smaller dealers, in turn, tried to get around the new controls by only making modest orders in an attempt to keep under the government radar, so to speak. In 1835, one such dealer, Simón Gurtubay Zubero–not, as some sources claim, his son José María (who was four-years-old at the time)–sent one of these orders to his supplier in Great Britain. However, a clerical error along the line meant that the order, which was made for “100 o 120” (as in “100 or 120” in English), was interpreted as being for 1,000,120 salted cods. With a flourish of Bizkaian self-assurance (Simón himself, though resident in Bilbao, had been born in Igorre), the intrepid Gurtubay accepted the order and began making arrangements to offload his rather large order wherever he could. Just at that very moment, though, with the First Carlist War (1833-39) already underway, Carlist troops laid siege to Bilbao in 1836, provoking a major shortage of provisions in the city. Suddenly Gurtubay became the savior of the city, with his warehouses full of this now almost priceless commodity. The city withstood the siege, Gurtubay went on to establish one of the biggest fortunes in the country, using a lot of that wealth and influence to establish the Bank of Bilbao and the Bilbao Chamber of Commerce, as well as to build the hospitals of Basurto and Igorre, his birthplace.
See this short TV report on the Gurtubay family, cod, and Bilbao (in Spanish) here.
And Bilbao came to be the city of salt cod, which is served typically in two ways: in the white pil-pil sauce (really, the natural oils of the fish plus olive oil and garlic) or in the red Bizkaian sauce (made from onions and sweet dried red pepper). Check out the late Hasier Etxeberria’s On Basque Cuisine, free to download here from the Etxepare Basque Institute, for a discussion of and recipes for both sauces. See, too, of course, Mark Kurlansky’s wonderful Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.