Origin: Bilbao in the Basque Country and Pamplona in Navarre.


Ajoarriero, which literally means mule driver's garlic, is original from Spanish northern regions, this dish, like many other typical Spanish food, made its debut first in eateries and inns and only many years later did it reach the tables of finer restaurants. However it was created by, surprise surprise, mule drivers. However it's name refers to how the dish is spiced, as it actually is a codfish preparation.

The mule drivers who went to and fro Saragossa and Bilbao using the route that crossed Vitoria and Pamplona would spend the night at inns along the road, but they would stop alongside the river bank, or wherever they considered it was a good spot for their animals to rest, for a meal.

In those times it wasn't easy to preserve packed meals, specially in summer when temperatures could be very high, so they couldn't carry desalted and soaked cod, as it would naturally spoil.

These guys didn't have a lot of time either, as in those days it was always the first mule driver to arrive in town that would be able to sell all of his animals with ease. Back in that time, they made ajoarriero by lighting a fire and the cod chunks would be cooked on top of hot rocks or else they would hang the cod from stakes over the flames. The heat would make the fish ooze salt, yet they would only remove the fish when it got a blackish hue.

The fish pieces would be then rinsed in river water and squeezed until they formed humid cod balls. In the meanwhile crabs would be captured (now there aren't many left, but they were abundant then).

The mule drivers would pour some oil in a clay pot over the fire and add as many garlic cloves as people. They would also add red chili, green peppers and tomatoes and to top it all an egg per person. Ajoarriero is a simple dish to make.

However ajoarriero's recipe is not an exact science, as it was an itinerant dish there are regional variations, for example in some places they add potatoes, and the cooks will sometimes add other ingredients according to taste and availability. In Pamplona it received the name of "Bacalao de Pamplona" and it used to be one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite dish while he lived in that city.

Ajoarriero | Mule Driver's Garlic


Preparation (4 to 6 portions):

  • 800 grams of cod (ideally unsalted)
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 600 grams of grated tomato
  • 300 grams of piquillo pepper or another small red non spicy pepper variety
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 onion
  • 400 grams of potato (optional)
  • You can also add other ingredients such as crab or lobster, and if cod is not available you can use another type of whitefish, such as hake.


  • If the codfish is salted, soak the fish in water for 24 hours, changing the water every few hours.
  • Squeeze the cod with your hands first and then with a clean dry cloth until the fish is just damp and not sodden.
  • Peel three garlic cloves and add them to a pan with oil in it. Dice the red peppers and then add them to the pan. Stir fry lightly and then take the pan off the heat.
  • In another pan, pour some oil and add the peeled and the finely diced green pepper. When the onion begins to brown and the pepper is soft add a teaspoon of sugar. Remove from the heat.
  • Cut the potatoes into cubes. Once they are cooked remove them from the heat and drain well.
  • In the same oil add 3 garlic cloves and the chili, remove shortly after and then sauté the cod in the same oil, but only until it gets hot.
  • Add the cod to the pan with the onion, green pepper and tomato, mix well and add the red peppers and finally the potatoes. Let it cook for a further 10 minutes at low heat and serve hot. Enjoy.