It’s not a lunar landscape, nor is it a long stretch of white sand, nor has the effect been achieved by a trick of Photoshop. At 3,600 metres above sea level, in a place with neither air pollution nor traffic. This salt flat is pure absence of colour, of space, it’s the epitome of a non-place. The Salar de Uyuni is a salt desert measuring 12,000 square metres in area and is the largest salt flat in the world, located in the high planes of the Andes mountains in Southern Bolivia.
NaCl is the compound of common kitchen salt or sodium chloride, but four letters of the alphabet have never been so inept at describing the material and symbolic value of a substance. Salt can be life, money, a good for bartering, a metaphor for wit, a way to purify – both alchemically and religiously. There’s infinite literary testimony to the commercial, culinary and social value of salt – but I never thought that salt could be given a psychoanalytic meaning as well.
In Salt and the Alchemical Soul by the Scottish psychiatrist Ernest Jones (written with James Hillman, C.G. Jung, Stanton Marlan Editor) the author has dedicated years of study and reflection to this “pure and immaculate” substance, calling it “the essence of things”. Those who study psychoanalysis that give an alchemic, fertile power to salt, and the same Jones (who, among other books, also wrote a biography of Sigmund Freud) has written a book about the rituals and superstitions tied to the sprinkling of table salt. Along with her “sister”, water, salt is the only comestible element to have acquired such a vast symbolism among all of the world’s cultures.
The Egyptians used salt to help in the mummification process, while for Mayans it served a therapeutic purpose when mixed with oil or honey. The Ancient Greeks and Hebrews used salt during sacrificial rituals, and within the Roman temples the vestals used it as a symbol of purification. In the tales surrounding the ruins of Carthage, after it was burned and conquered by the Romans, salt was sprinkled over the grounds in order to prevent its resurgence. In every religion – from Christianity to Shinto – salt has been used to prevent spiritual corruption and moral decay.
But where does salt really come from? The most ancient and widely diffused method of extracting salt is evaporation, which is what happens in salt flats. Rain water or sea water gathers in an area and, with the sun’s rays, the brine becomes more and more concentrated. For this miracle to happen, it’s fundamental that there is more evaporation than precipitation, as in the case in a desert environment.
In the U.S., there are famous salt flats like those in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
The biggest salt flats in Italy can be found in the Puglia region, at Margherita di Savoia; at Cervia in Romagna; Cagliari in Sardinia and Trapani in Sicily. The Trapani salt flats extend for nearly a thousand hectares and much of the Reserve includes private property, whose residents have been working on the “cultivation” of salt for centuries. From above, the bodies of water are separated by thin strips of land like a chessboard and the windmills evoke Northern European landscapes. Along with the extraction of salt, these wetlands along the Sicilian coastline are important for their biological treasures and this territory is home to flamingos, white herons, egrets, and falcons.
While evaporation has the advantage of not needing any energy besides that of the sun, it has the grave limit of being possible only in a climate like that found in the Mediterranean, and is very difficult in areas subject to monsoons or cold temperatures. Salt flats, however, do exist in regions that might seem unfavorable – like sodium chloride deposits, residue from pre-historical seas, that have formed into solid formations, called rock-salt. And from these formations, salt is extracted – not by evaporation – but by mining. The salt mine of Salzburg, for example, is one of the oldest in Europe, and its name – “salz” (meaning “salt”) and “burg” (meaning “village”) speaks for itself. Just like the river, Salzach by which salt barges transport salt. The sodium chloride gets extracted in large pieces that then get ground into the desired small grains. If necessary, the sodium chloride can be refined in the same way that sea salt is.
If you come across large-grained crystals of salt in colours that range from pale pink to deep orange (whose colour derives from the high iron content), you’ve encountered the so-called Himalayan salt. Its history is fascinating and ancient; it’s a marine salt fossil from the residues of the interior seas created by the joining of the tectonic plates between what is currently India, between 100 and 250 million years ago. The area is incredibly rich is mineral salts, which are even more precious as they are gathered and ground by hand. What is called “Himalayan” salt comes from the mines of Khewra in the region of Kashmir, Pakistan, and is transported by steam engine to reach the valleys below, in order to retain its original purity. Continuing on our voyage through the world’s salt flats, we should give special attention to the Tunisian salt lake, Chott el-Djerid at the border of the Sahara desert, which covers over 5,000 square km, the largest salt lake of the region. Looking at a photo, one might be overwhelmed with the desire to jump into the white-tipped waves, but actually the surface isn’t water, but rather built-up salt crystals over a sandy, clay soil bottom. The distance is covered by a raised road that connects Tozeur to Douz – a perfect setting for an action film and a beloved location for photographers. The salt flats in this part of the world provide some of this planet’s most breathtaking landscapes.
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