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Humble and Noble: the History of Salt

Humble and Noble: the History of Salt

Salt is at once the humblest and most noble of condiments: take a look at the history of salt, whose value has been in its ability to preserve and season food.

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Salt, white gold, is at once the humblest and most noble of condiments. It is the one that you can’t do without (under-salted food is often described as without taste), that every savory recipe calls for (and a number of sweet ones, too), and that too much of makes a dish inedible. Yet we tend to forget about it, take it for granted. It was not always this way.

The history of salt is long and deep, and whole books have been written on it, like Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: a World History. Its value, since time immemorial, has been in its ability to preserve meat and fish. Our ancestors killed more than they could consume in a single meal. Not wanting the meat to go to waste, they developed techniques for making it last longer, of which smoking and salting are the oldest—and most delicious (think of prosciutto or bacala). The taste preference for salted food came later. But such was the value of its preservative qualities that it was used as payment, famously by the early incarnation of the Roman army, hence the term “salary,” which comes from the Latin, salarium, meaning “salt.” The saying “worth their salt,” meaning worthy of payment, is of ancient Roman origin. Even the Old Testament’s Book of Ezra associates being given salt from someone and entering into their service: salt as pay. The practice didn’t end in the ancient world: in the War of 1812, salt was sometimes used to supplement payment when money was in short supply.

These days salt is incredibly inexpensive, but not long ago it was costly, and it has always been difficult to obtain. There are two sources: sea water and rock. Salt mining is a painstaking enterprise, chipping away at sedimentary evaporate minerals that are present in rock because ancient, prehistoric bodies of saltwater once pooled there. And extracting salt from seawater requires the evaporation of the water, traditionally in outdoor salt flats but these days in factories (check out here a gallery of amazing saltmines).

The oldest known settlement in Europe built as a center for salt production is Solnitsata, Bulgaria, but one of the oldest still active salt pans, still very much in use as they have been for at least 1200 years, are the salt pans outside of Piran, Slovenia, which were first mention in 804 AD but were surely far older, almost certainly in use when the territory was part of the Roman Empire, and possibly even predating it. There are famous locations known for their salt that folks may not realize as such, like Salzburg, Austria (which translates as “salt town”). Timbuktu in Mali was a vast trade center for salt, with camel trains thousands long carrying salt across the Sahara. Liverpool in England was a port of little importance before the 19th century, when salt mines at nearby Cheshire began to be the world’s largest producer of this king of spices. Munich was given the status of city in 1158 when funds from salt sales were redirected away from the bishops of Freising and to the town of Munich. And any town in England with a name that ends in –wich (Sandwich, Middlewich, Ipswich) is linked to salt harvesting through brine springs (the suffix comes from the Latin word for “place” but in the Middle Ages its association shifted to indicate a salt center.

For anyone who doubts the importance of salt to what we consider tasty, one needs only sample bread in central Italy. Aside from focaccia and ciabatta, most bread that one can buy at a bakery is unsalted. This is a holdover from a medieval. Tuscan bread has been made without salt since, as legend has it, an outrageously-high tax on salt prompted the locals to give it up altogether, rather than pay through the nose. The solution to this puzzle is that Italians almost never eat bread on its own, but instead use it as a conduit for consuming salted toppings, as in bruschetta (here is a recipe for Italian bruschetta), or to mop up salted sauces, as in the colorful term fare la scarpetta (“to make a little shoe,” as in to walk the bread around the plate to soak up leftover sauce). The one thing you won’t want to do, if you’ve grown up outside of Tuscany, is eat their bread straight.

The theory goes that we crave salty foods today, as we crave sweet ones, because for tens of thousands of years salty and sweet foods were hard to come by, and therefore hard-won victories when you found them. But we also need salt biologically—when we sweat we lose sodium and our body wants us to replace it, hence the mental craving. Over the past century, we have also been encouraged to intake more salt (and more sugar) because processed foods include added salt (often to an unhealthy degree) because corporations know that they can play to our biological craving. And so we have developed an ever-increasing desire for ever larger quantities of salt in our food.

Next time you add a pinch of salt, pause and spare a thought for the long history of this most valuable of spices which, all too often, we overuse and take for granted.

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