Monday, March 12, 2012

Brazil's Domestic Bacalhau Arrives on the Scene

Bacalhau, which is salted and semi-dried cod fish and which is known in English as salt cod, has roots in Brazilian food culture that go back to the arrival of the very first Europeans to arrive on these shores. Portuguese fishermen were fishing cod in the cold waters of the North Atlantic as early as the 15th century and most of their harvest was preserved by salting and drying the catch. Salt cod was carried on board Portuguese caravels on their early voyages of exploration and when Pedro Cabral made the first European landing in Brazil in 1500, his ship carried significant stocks of salt cod to feed his crew. Ever since that day Brazilians have been eating bacalhau and it has become an indispensible part of Brazilian cuisine.

Bacalhau is linked to holiday eating patterns in Brazil and is a feature of both Christmas and Easter feasts. At these times, when family memories tend to be the longest, Brazilians find comfort in eating bacalhau just the way that vovó (grandma) used to make it. But even when neither of the two large Christian holidays is near, Brazilians eat bacalhau for Sunday lunch, traditionally the biggest meal of the week, and for other daily meals and snacks.

Because cod is a cold-water fish and the waters in the oceans off Brazil's coasts are mostly warm water, up to now all of Brazil's bacalhau has had to be imported, 97% of the total coming from Norway. Each year, Brazil imports 30 thousand tons of the fish from Norway to meet its needs, making Brazil the largest cod-importing nation in the world. In 2010, Brazil spent 1.03 billion Norwegian kroners (about 175m USD) buying salt cold. That's a lot of money, and that's just the import price. By the time bacalhau arrives at the retail level, whether fish shop or super market, it has become a very expensive food. Average Brazilian retail price in 2011 was approximately R$90/kg, which works out to about USD$22.60/lb. But even with these high prices, which go higher every year, Brazilians do not seem to be willing to forego their bacalhau.

Location of Maraã
In 2011, there were the first stirrings of what might be a dramatic shift in the market for salt cod in Brazil. In August, in the isolated village of Maraã in Brazil's gigantic Amazonian rain forest, Brazil's first factory of domestically-produced "bacalhau" opened. Located in an area of the forest which has been designated a Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS in Portuguese), and built with support from state and federal governments, a cooperative factory processes a fresh-water fish from the Amazon called pirarucu the very same way that bacalhau is produced from cod and with very similar results. The pirarucu is the world's largest fresh water fish, reaching up to 150 kg (over 300 lbs) and yielding up to 70 kg (over 140 lbs) of meat per fish. Fishing of Piracuru in the RDS is monitored and controlled for sustainability, and the Maraã cooperative only uses fish from the reserve to produce its "bacalhau da Amazônia". The product is marketed under that name to avoid confusion with true bacalhau, which must come from cod.

At the end of 2011, the first commercial production of "bacalhau da Amazônia" reached supermarkets in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon basin, as well as other cities in the region just in time for the Christmas season. The retail price ranged between R$35 and R$50 per kilo, or about half of the price of Norwegian bacalhau. Customers liked the price, of course, and first reports are that they also liked the product, comparing it favorably to true bacalhau.

In December, 2011, representatives of Brazil's largest chain of supermarkets, Pão de Açúcar, visited the factory in Maraã in the hopes of creating a commercial partnership with the cooperative to market and sell "bacalhau da Amazônia" in other regions of Brazil.

In many ways, the potential for "bacalhau da Amazônia" is enormous. The world's largest fresh-water fish, farmed sustainably, used to supply the world's largest import market for salt cold - it all makes very good sense. Flavors of Brazil wonders if the Norwegians might be looking at this scheme with a nervous eye.

1 comment:

  1. It might be not bad, but without the farinha-do-Uarini (also often quoted as farinha d'água) it will become hard to make the authentic pirarucu-de-casaca (unless somebody manages to do it with fubá italiano as a replacement to the farinha d'água).