Up and down canopied Ninth Street, and on Dickinson, last week the holiday baccala were migrating back to South Philadelphia as surely as, every spring, the shad head up the Delaware a dozen or so blocks away.
The baccala aren't locals: They tend to hail from Canada, off Labrador, or, in some higher-end cases, from the frigid waters off Norway.
But they are not hard to spot, splayed like flying squirrels in the bone-in version, or boneless ivory slabs the shape of giant shark's teeth, the texture of the harder ones leathery and salty, beached in wood crates near the olive oil at Claudio's, the cheeserie, and in the cases (above the blue, king, stone and Dungeness crabs) at Anastasi's Seafood, Ninth and Washington, where before the year is out they figure 2,000 pounds will likely go out the door.
Baccala is just one of their names, Italian for the big blades of salt cod (and a dried but unsalted cousin sometimes called
) that make their run in the weeks before Christmas - ready for star turns in chunky, tomatoey stews, and Sicilian salads (with celery and oil-cured olives), and, well, every which way you can think of; flour-dusted and pan-fried, stuffed into peppers, roasted on a bed of onions, even in the coppery seasonal fritters that "Aunt" Connie DeAngelis (nee Ippolito) presides over at Ippolito's (215-389- 8906), the fish store down on Dickinson Street since 1929.
is not quite the right word. The stuff is as salty and parched as a Virginia country ham, and it needs to be soaked (with a few changes of the water) for a couple of days or more, as it gradually swells by about a third, and spookily takes on the properties, more or less, of the original fish. (Cod is not dead so much as it's waiting for its rehydration!)
A thousand years ago, Basque seafarers from Spain's rugged northeast did similar curing, catching the ancestors of the latter-day cod off Canada, and salting them to prevent spoilage on the long voyage home. You can still get an elegant twist on one of their traditional dishes, Bacalao a la Viscaina, at Tinto, the Basque-themed restaurant at 20th and Sansom. (In this iteration, the silky, fresh Alaskan sablefish known as "black cod" is topped with green olive and piquillo pepper escabeche and set in a savory puddle of Biscayne tomato sauce infused with saffron, smoky
peppers - yes, they're used to season chorizo sausage - and just before serving, crowned with subtle flakes of the poached salt cod.)
You'll see white pails of "salt fish" (sometimes used in salt-fish-and-pork dishes) in the Asian markets on Washington Avenue. And at the new Parc Brasserie on Rittenhouse Square salt cod (with whipped potatoes, oil and garlic) becomes the warm, sensuously creamy French bistro spread brandade de morue.
But it is in the city's Italian neighborhoods, and their suburban and Jersey spawn, that the baccala (one of the seven fishes of the holiday feast) is strictly seasonal, essential during the Christmas holidays. Then it's over and out.
It's not quite as essential - Salvatore Anastasi at Anastasi's Seafood (215-462-0550) says he now sells less than half the 5,000 pounds he once sold. But it's hanging in even as old-timers are abandoning other seasonal stalwarts - artichokes and chestnuts, cipolline onions and persimmons, and most disappointing to produce seller Michael Anastasio, cardoons, the celery-looking stalks dating to Roman cuisine: "How much cardoon we used to sell!" he says.
There are acolytes, and latter-day converts - third-generation adults forgiving the fish they detested bloating up in the galvanized washtubs of their youth; Italian Americans suffering acute attacks of late-onset nostalgia.
One of the acolytes, on the other hand, is Salvatore Ferlazzo, 72, from Messina, Sicily, now in Delran 52 years, running a barber and beauty shop. Each year even as the dried, unsalted cod he calls stocca has gotten pricier (at $19.95 double the price of baccala), he has procured the fish from Anastasi, whose own family, like most of the original Italian Market vendors, is from Spadafora, outside Messina.
Stocca is a scary-looking thing, seemingly fossilized, hard as a baseball bat, its skin vaguely reptilian, its tail frozen in mid-swish. Anastasi's usually has one hanging from the ceiling, a talisman of sorts.
It requires a full week of soaking. But to Ferlazzo, it tastes like Sicily, in a stew of tomato, olives, capers and potatoes, a fish cured by the air, right by the ocean, in the ocean breeze.