In September of 1958, Britain declared war on Iceland, opening a conflict that would come to be known as the First Cod War. The casus belli was a new Icelandic law extending the nation's fishing zone from four to twelve nautical miles from shore and ousting British fishing vessels from the area. The outraged British decided to defy the new law and sent out their trawlers, now protected by warships. A number of desultory confrontations at sea followed, including one in which an Icelandic ship and a British vessel collided, more or less inadvertently. At one point, Britain equipped one of its fishing boats with a Soviet flag, contravening international law and sparking considerable Russian indignation. After a few months of irritable encounters between English and Icelandic fishermen, the British admitted defeat and withdrew.
But more piscine drama was yet to come. A Second Cod War began in September 1972, when the Icelanders further extended their fishing area to fifty nautical miles and once again came into conflict with British ships. NATO was forced to intervene and negotiate a settlement, which limited British ships to certain areas within the Icelandic zone.
Three years later, Iceland once again increased the extent of its fishing zone, this time to 200 miles from the coast. Britain refused to recognize the change and another extended battle - the Third Cod War - ensued, involving numerous incidences of economically damaging net-cutting and vicious boat ramming; tactics on both sides were more damaging for the boats and the fish than for the human combatants. The conflict eventually came to a close when the Icelandic government threatened to shut down the NATO base it hosted at Keflavik, considered a crucial Cold War defense point against potential Soviet incursions in the Atlantic. Britain withdrew from the 200 mile zone and the Cod Wars officially ended in June of 1976.
Who could have believed that these two peace-loving nations would duke it out over a few cod fillets? But let us recall the vital role that cod plays in British culture and identity. It is, after all, the central ingredient in what the Rough Guide to Britain rather cattily identifies as "Britain's one truly significant contribution to world cuisine" - fish and chips. (Incidentally, the Rough Guide appears to have been written by someone who harbors a covert but deep-seated loathing for these lovely green isles.)
Cod appears in a number of other guises in British cuisine as well, not the least of which is the justly celebrated fishcake. More modest than crabcakes but very nearly as delicious, our version of this tasty English dish incorporates some Mediterranean touches.
Cod Cakes with Lemon-Caper Aioli
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large fillet of cod
2/3 cup stale bread, cubed into 1/4 inch pieces
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 egg, lightly beaten
2/3 cup fine breadcrumbs or panko
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon capers, finely chopped
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Season cod with salt and pepper. Panfry cod until just cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Remove to a plate and let cool, then flake into small pieces.
Combine fish, bread, onion, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon oregano, red pepper and lemon zest in large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add enough egg to moisten the mixture (you may not need the whole egg). Mix to combine and let sit until bread has soaked up egg and mixture coheres when pressed. Form into six small patties.
Mix breadcrumbs, remainder of oregano and salt and pepper on a plate. Coat patties with breadcrumb mixture, pressing to adhere. Refrigerate patties for 15-20 minutes (this helps them hold together when cooked).
Meanwhile, make aioli by combining mayonnaise, garlic, lemon juice, capers and salt and pepper in a small bowl.
Heat remainder of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add fishcakes and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side.
Serve with aioli.
Makes about 6 small fishcakes.
For more information on the Cod Wars and other facts about this fascinating fish, check out Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.