“Where would we be without salt” – so wrote James Beard. Where indeed? What is it about this small piece of sodium chloride, the size of a grain of sand, that so effects what and how we eat?
It is a basic seasoning in food and is elemental in food preservation as it inhibits bacterial growth. It is also one of the basic electrolytes in the human body. We cannot live without it. Like all living beings, we need salt (actually the sodium and chloride ions) in our system to regulate the water content in our bodies. Too much salt, for example, can lead to high blood-pressure.
It has been harvested for millennia. Some of the earliest salt works ever found date back to 6000BC in Xiechi Lake in Yuncheng, Shanxi, China and in Lunca, Romania.
From the Roman Empire to Native Americans, from the nomadic traders of the Sahara to the Ancient Egyptians, all cultures around the world have depended on the salt trade at one point in their economic development. There are a number of cities whose names stem from their links to the salt trade - Salzburg (literally salt city) which sits upon the Salzach (salt water) River; Salisbury in England; Tuzla in Bosnia-Herzegovina – Tuz is salt in Turkish, are but a few.
Long before the advent of refrigeration – a technique that has only existed for 200 years – salt was one of the primary tools used in preserving food. Food, once preserved was then able to be traded as a commodity. The Egyptians, for example, began exporting salt fish in 2800BC. It has also been used as forms of currency, (and still is by the Tuareg nomads who ply their trade in salt caravans in the northern Sahara) and it allowed those who controlled the manufacturing of salt a great deal of economic and political power. The Republic of Venice rose to economic dominance in the 11th - 13th centuries in large part because of its salt monopoly.
It has also led to bloody upheavals and contributed to revolutions in India and France. Mahatma Gandhi led more than 100,000 people on the salt Satyagraha as a protest against the salt tax laws during British rule in India. He inspired people to make their own salt, illegal at the time, to avoid paying salt taxes to the British. This action inspired millions of his fellow countrymen in their struggle for independence.
In France, during the 17th and 18th centuries a number of excise taxes were imposed on the population, covering commodities such as tobacco and wine. One of the most oppressive tax burdens was the salt tax, or gabelle as it was known, that was levied by the French Monarchy. The effect of this tax on the population was one of the contributing causes of the French Revolution. Amazingly, the tax was reintroduced by Napoleon to pay for his invasion of Italy. It remained a part of French Law until it was abolished in 1949. Ironically, Napoleon lost thousands of soldiers on their retreat from Russia because their wounds failed to heal due to the lack of salt.
Salt has also featured heavily in US history as these examples show:
~ One of the first patents issued by the British crown was to an American settler, Samuel Winslow of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which gave him the exclusive right for ten years to make salt. By 1778, a treaty written between the state of New York and the Iroquois' Onondaga tribe contained a proviso for salt reservations, intended to prevent monopolies, as did The Land Act of 1795.
~ Salt played a vital role during the American Revolution where an element of the British strategy was to deny the American rebels access to salt.
~ During the American Civil War the South’s armies fought a 36-hour battle with Union forces as they tried to capture Saltville, Virginia, the site of a strategic salt processing mine.
~ America is now the world’s largest producer of Sodium Chloride. However, only a small percentage of that production is for table salt; about 3%. There are about 14,000 uses for salt ranging from uses in textiles to set dies, in pharmaceuticals to make soaps, to salting roads in winter to melt ice and for use in refrigeration units.
Salt effects our food supply to this day, particularly in Southern California as a significant percentage of our water supply comes from the Colorado River. There has been approximately 9 million tons of salt seeping into the Colorado River annually. Roughly half can be attributed to natural sources such as erosion of lands and saline springs. The balance is human-induced, stemming from irrigation practices and municipal and industrial sources. The river is now so salty in its lower reaches that large desalination projects are now required to render the water useable for human consumption and for further agricultural use.
Beyond its practical uses, our language is replete with references to this tiny grain. The expression, “A man is worth his salt”, stems from the time when Greek slave traders bartered slaves for salt. Roman soldiers received part of their pay as an allowance – their salarium argentum - to pay for salt. Hence the word salary, which stems from the Latin Sal – meaning salt.
Religious texts also have there fair share of salty comments, most notably Lot’s wife who is turned into a pillar of salt when she took a forbidden look at the city of Sodam as she escaped. It is auspicious in Hindu mythology and used in religious ceremonies around the world; as part of the Tridentine Mass; as ritual purification of people and places in Shinto ceremonies - Sumo wrestlers throw salt in the ring to chase away evil spirits; in Jewish temples, offerings include salt and on the Sabbath, Jews dip their bread in salt water in remembrances of sacrifices made by their ancestors.
Salt permeates all aspects of our lives. Traditions and superstitions that we adhere to today have their roots in our saline history. We throw salt over our left shoulder if we spill it for example, as this is supposed to ward off the devil that may be hiding there. This comes from the story of Judas at the last supper, where he is purported to have spilled salt – an augury of evil and bad luck. An image that is immortally captured in Leonardo DaVinci’s vast canvas, The Last Supper.
Buddhists similarly believe that salt wards off evil spirits. It is customary to throw salt over your shoulder before returning home after a funeral, to repel any devils that may be clinging behind you.
All these traditions and sayings are not even linked to the preparation of food, but this is where salt is at its most noticeable. In cooking, salt enhances the natural flavor of food and suppresses bitterness. A salad made with bitter greens will be tempered with the addition of salt in the greens. Vegetables, when cooked in salty water, will cook faster than in just plain water or when steamed. Potatoes on the other hand, cook more evenly if salt is not added at the beginning. In bread baking, salt strengthens the gluten in the dough by allowing it to contain more water and carbon dioxide, allowing the dough to expand and not tear. It also enhances the golden colour in bread crusts. Pasta cooked in salted water will taste better. Salt also enhances the sweet tastes in food.
Margaret Visser, the award-winning author of The Rituals of Dinner, wrote “Salt is the policeman of taste: it keeps the various flavors of a dish in order and restrains the stronger from tyrannizing over the weaker.” The key in cooking with salt is to achieve the right balance. Too much salt and food is inedible, too little, and it is bland.
SPRING GREENS SALAD WITH ARRUGULA, SPINACH AND DANDELIONS
WITH A WARM ZESTY VINAIGRETTE
Serves 8 people
A good aged red wine or sherry vinegar of your choice
Salt & pepper to taste
Zest of 1 orange or other sweet citrus fruit such as Tangerines or Mandarins
1 lb fresh arrugula, dandelion and spinach – cleaned and de-stemmed
2 apples - sweet crunchy ones – cored and thinly sliced
4 oz pistachio nuts – roughly chopped
4 oz dried cranberries or cherries
6 oz Goat’s Feta
fresh parsley – finely chopped
fresh chives – finely chopped
WHOLE BAKED FISH IN A SALT CRUST
Pythagoras wrote in 550BC “Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea”. This dish is the perfect compliment to that thought.
Serves 6-8 people (depending on the size of the fish)
1 whole fish (scaled and gutted) You can use pretty much any fish. Whole stripped bass, salmon, snapper, mullet, trout etc.
coarse sea salt – you will need a lot of this but the amount depends on how big your fish is – usually about 3-4lbs
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch dill
1 bunch fennel tops (i.e. the tops cut off 2 or 3 fennel bulbs)
2 lemons cut into thin slices
WARM SPRING VEGETABLE SALSA WITH A BASIL SAUCE
For the vegetables:
8 spring onions – quartered
½ lb baby yellow chard leaves – roughly chopped
1 lb asparagus – cut into 1 inch pieces
1 round zucchini – sliced and chopped
For the Basil Sauce:
Large bunch basil – leaves removed from stems
1 small bunch parsley
1 bunch chives – roughly chopped
½ cup water
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
½ lb organic cherry tomatoes
To assemble the dish:
ESPRESSO SALT MERINGUES
I came across this incredible espresso salt and immediately wondered what I could make with it. Its paring with chocolate is a natural one, but I wanted to try other things. I love salty/sweet combinations, a small caramel perhaps with a piece of fleur de sel. I also love meringues. This was too good an opportunity to miss and so I tried meringues with this salt. It’s heavenly.
Serves 8 – 10 people
3 egg whites
7 1/ 2 oz sugar – (1 cup less 2 level tablespoons)
1 teaspoon Espresso Salt