Our very first impulse is to associate salt and the taste it imparts to a dish.And yet, its presence on the table in a more or less ornate saltcellar in a convivialsettingthat of friends sharing a meal and graciously offering one anotherthe spiceis also a legacy from history, one in which the precious spice was attimes scarce and expensive. And, in yet a third meaning, salt being given andreceived is an indicator of the rich social relations by which outsiders integratethemselves into a gathering or, at the very least, are able to strike up anacquaintance.
The chapter thus opens with a Japanese proverb, ushering us from the worldof the social contract and aggressive virility to the domestic sphere, in which thecook, whether a man or a woman, prepares dishes.
But why, after all, is salt necessary in food? Because the organism has adaily need for a certain amount of salt (at higher levels, salt becomes toxic). Itis even an antiseptic agent: high concentrations of salt kill bacteria. This led tothe invention of salt curing, presumably as far back as prehistoric times.
But all such inventions did not occur that early: the salting offish (cod, herring)for the purpose of preservation was invented in historic times, in the fourteenthcentury, assuredly, for preserving herring. Caviar, one of our luxuries,depends for its preparation on the sturgeon eggs having first been salted. In thenineteenth century, the cossacks of the Don made the preparation of caviartheir specialty. An incident recounted in Alexandre Dumas'sRussian traveljournals hints at an elegant solution to the dilemma of how to reconcile a salttax levied by a ruler with a communal life in which salt is to some extentdemonetarized and in which what enjoys currency is the sharing of salt. Thisis evoked in a proverb also drawn from a Slavic culture. Salt thus symbolizessocial harmony.
Having thus noted the role in food preservation still played today by saltcuring, I will move from the larder to the kitchen. In cold dishes, salt is an ingredientessential to the taste of the food it enhances. In hot dishes, its presence incooking water helps to protect against various denaturations, whether these arean egg bursting, pasta sticking together, or vegetables transformed into a mushnot only tasteless but formless as well.
Along the way, I will show how a sauce such as the garum of Romanantiquity's common people enabled them to defraud the tax system quite asreadily as to impart flavor to their dishes and even to prompt other pleasuresof the flesh! Like French cuisine, Italian cuisine makes great use of sauces, suchas salsa verde, and some Italian proverbs have retained their lewd doublemeaning, with salted dishes construed as aphrodisiacs.
The salty contrasts with the sweet. The chapter ends with the social solutionto this antinomy during the holiday season: it is associated both with theSaint Nicholas figure of northern and eastern countries and with the traditionof giving sweets to children; their shared origin is the salt curing of the pig, sacrificedat Saint Nicholas tide and then macerated all winter long in coarse saltin a salting tub.
But let us first consider the outcome for other foods of being macerated fora time in salt.
THE PROVERB OF SALT ON LETTUCE. The Japanese saying "aona nishio," whose literal sense is "to salt the greens," means the deflatingof a braggart. The word aona is a generic term for that which isgreen, more particularly, for lettuces and vegetables. Shio means salt.Salted lettuce wilts. It tends to shed water through osmosis in aneffort to equalize salt concentrations inside and outside the plantcells (a point to which I shall return). The process is unavoidable: Assoon as a droplet of water from the lettuce leaf dilutes the addedsalt, a brine appears. This saline solution is much more highly concentratedthan that in the cells of the lettuce leaves. The two salinesolutions come into contact on both sides of the cellular membranesthat serve as their interfaces. Since these cellular membranes are permeableto water, the internal and external concentrations equalize,as with connected vessels where liquid levels rather quickly becomethe same.
But the relevant effect is the resulting decayed aspect of the lettuceleaf or, for that matter, any part of a plant. Adding salt ruins freshness,tarnishes, and makes a food less appetizing. Crisp and appealing as itwas, it has turned limp and old. The Japanese proverb raises a banal,everyday observation to the symbolic level through a transfer to themoral sphere. The supposedly brave person is so only in appearance;in fact, he or she is a big coward.
Arms and the Man, an 1894 play by George Bernard Shaw, deconstructsheroism and works out in an amusing way this paradox of thewarrior, who outwardly appears aggressive, martial, and bellicose yetis in fact timorous and fearful.
OSMOSIS AND SALT CURING. Lettuce is not the only organism thatwilts in the presence of added salt. To get rid of slugs, one can sprinklethem with salt. They shed their water and die. This results, for theorganism as a whole, from osmosis: when water goes back and forththrough cell membranes, a dilute solution will mix with a more concentratedsolution on both sides of the membrane. After some time, astate of equilibrium prevails in which the concentrations havebecome equalized on both sides of the membrane. Recall that theconcentration is the amount of substance (here, the amount of dissolvedsalt) per unit volume (see fig. 1).
Osmosis explains quite a few culinary practices. It is one of thereasons for salting the water used to cook an egg: if this salting is notdone, the water in the pot can migrate through the porous shell intothe egg's interior and dilute its content, which is richer in salt thanis the cooking water. The egg would then swell up, causing its shellto burst. Another example, describing a method for treating a vegetablehat closely resembles the one used to destroy slugs, is that ofsalting cucumbers in order to make them sweat out their water.
Since organisms of all sorts, vegetable and mineral, have an aqueousinterior and cells with water-permeable membranes, salt canbecome toxic once its concentration outside a cell exceeds that in theinternal aqueous cellular environment. Thus salt provides humankindwith a simple technique for asepsis, as a protection against pathogenicbacteria, a technique that has been used from time immemorial, alongwith alcohol. On ships, sailors used it, in a painful but effective manner,to disinfect wounds.
Whence, it would appear, the invention of salt curing, from thebeginnings of agriculture, impelled by the need to protect variouscrops from spoiling, that is, from destruction by microbiological infection.As a general rule, salt-curing methods go hand in hand with partialdrying techniques, aimed at preserving protein in a more lastingway: milk transformed into cheese, salted fish (most particularly, herringand cod), salted meats (dried meat from Grisons or Italian bresaola,ham, dry sausage, various charcuteries [cooked pork meats]).
The making of ham is an example. It is done in December andJanuary because the hams must be prepared in cold weather (at a temperaturebelow 39.2°F or 4°C) that will last long enough (thirty toforty days, or, to be accurate, two and a half days per half-kilogram) sothat they won't spoil before the salt curing can protect them. Thisperiod of time explains the connection in Western nations betweenthe Saint Nicholas festival and the period of the year for slaughteringpigs to prepare salted meats, which serve as a repository for protein. Iwill return to this.
Typically, the processing is done with a mixture of salt, sugar, andsaltpeter. Sugar serves to counteract the salt taste and supply energy tothe bacteria that transform nitrates into nitrites. Among other functions,saltpeter acts to redden the meat, which would otherwise be anot very appetizing gray color, retard rancidity, and prevent botulinictoxins from developing.
But though the salt curing of a ham occurs because salt protects itfrom external bacteria, the process also makes use of internal microorganisms:Micrococcus auriantiacus transforms sodium nitrate into sodiumnitrite, gluconodeltalactone converts sodium nitrite into nitrous acid,and the ascorbates then free nitric oxide, NO. This reacts with themyoglobin in the meat to produce, in an irreversible process, a compoundcalled nitrosyl hemochrome. If necessary, the salt-curingprocess is then followed by others, such as those used to make smokedham.
SALTING HERRING. Salt curing ensured the preservation of herring.To do it, one slits the fish with a special knife and removes the gills andthe branchia, the heart, and part of the viscera. The blood emptiesfrom this wound. Pancreatic enzymes, remaining active in the body ofthe fish, partly digest its flesh and make it tender. The herrings are thenpacked together with salt in a barrel (a caque, "cask"hence the nameof the process. [In French, the salt curing of herring is named, followingthe original Dutch term, "le caquage des harengs," the title for thissection of the chapter in the French original.Trans.]
The procedure appeared early in the fourteenth century (in Flanderscirca 1315-1330). A semilegendary character, Willem Beukelsz(or Beukels, Beukelszoon, or William Benkelsoor), is generally creditedwith its invention. A fisherman or steersman from Biervliet inZeeland, he died in 1397, if we are to believe a stained-glass windowin the church in the town of his birth, which shows him in the processof salting herring. The emperor Charles V visited Biervliet on August30, 1586, and honored his memory on that occasion. But the verydates of Beukelsz's life are disputed. He allegedly was the deputy magistrateof his village in 1312, but some historians date his discovery to1384; according to others, who date his death to 1397, the discoverywas made in 1349; and according to still others the discovery datesfrom 1375.
Whatever the historical truth, this astute way of combining saltpreservation with the beginnings of a digestion process using proteolyticenzymes was a revolutionary technique. It would be responsiblefor the prosperity of fishing centers such as Aberdeen; the ShetlandIslands, to the north of Scotland; the Hanseatic cities specializingin the twin trades of salt and herring; and the Netherlands especially:according to a proverb, Amsterdam was built on herring casks.
THE COSSACKS OF THE DON. Caviar is another salt-cured food. Itconsists of sturgeon eggs preserved with salt. In the nineteenth century,the cossacks of the Don had a near monopoly on its production,which they used as leverage to exact from the czar noninterference intheir traditional way of life. An observation from one of the greatestFrench writers intrigued me and led me to discover this cunning tacticused by the Cossacks.
Toward the end of his journey to Russia in 1858, Alexandre Dumasagain met with those cossacks of the Don who, as he wrote, "gave ussuch a great fright in our youth" [presumably at the time of the invasionof Paris, after Napoleon's final defeat]. He wonders about theirresources:
They pay the costs of their upkeep themselves [...] common soldiers receive [...] only thirteen rubles a month. With these thirteen rubles, they must clothe themselves and supply their horse and weapons. [...] They make do as best they can. It is up to them to get through hard times without sin. Russia is indeed the land of impossible arithmetic problems.
Instead of yielding to this absurdity, Dumas would have done betterto suspect that he lacked a piece of information. Puzzled by hisremark, I was able to find the answer to it in the travel account of theWestphalian baron August von Haxthausen, published in 1847.
The cossacks of the Don lived in a community governed by strictrules, which actually brings to mind the kolkhozes of the post-1917Communist regime. The cossacks owed military service to the czar,but the wealthiest of them could buy themselves a replacement,which led to some income redistribution among families. However,the central unit of cossack economic life was not the family but theentire community, what one might term the cossack nation. Two chiefsources of income prevailed in its budget: the sale of sturgeon-fishingpermits and a salt tax (salt was indispensable for curing of the fish andof the fish roe, or caviar). The sale price of a single sturgeon couldreach as much as four hundred rubles, the yearly income of the averagecossack.
Alexandre Dumas committed two errors, then, errors of ignoranceor oversight: the thirteen rubles from the government were in fact justpocket money for a cossack, who lived on the community as a wholerather than at his own family's expense. Moreover, the cossack communityoneis tempted to write "the cossack commune"hadplainly negotiated a treaty with the czar to supply him with elite soldiersin exchange for the right to administer salt taxes. The cossacksoccupied an area of southern Russia, between the Don and the Volgarivers, a region that, though far from the Caspian sea ("three or fourhundred versts away," according to Dumas, or about four hundredkilometers [A verst is a Russian measure of length, 1067 meters ortwo-thirds of a mile.Trans.]), nevertheless abounds in salt lakes that,to use Dumas's description, "yield ... fourteen to fifteen million kilogramsof salt annually."
Thus, in sharing revenues from such saltworks with the government,the cossacks freed themselves from dependence on the merchantswho bought their fish and otherwise might have supplied themwith salt at exploitative prices. Moreover, the communal structure oftheir economic life, strictly egalitarian in a great many respects andordered by stringent rules, prevented any given family from acquiringa monopoly on the provision of salt.
One can contrast this good fortune of the cossacks of the Don,which they owed to their favorable geographic location next totheir own salt supply, with the less bountiful fate of numerous fishingpeoples. The cod-fishing people of the Shetland Isles in thenorth of Scotland were supplied with salt, alcohol, and tobacco bynone other than the buyers of their fish, who arrived from theHanseatic cities of Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck. The ensuingnear-colonial domination of these buyers would last from the fourteenthcentury until the beginning of the eighteenth century, wellafter the decline of the Hanseatic League in the sixteenth century.Finally, the union of England and Scotland in 1707 led to the levyingof taxes to dissuade foreigners from trading on British soil.Essentials: scarcity of one commodity (salt) can lead to abundance ofanother (friendship).
THE PROVERB OF FRIENDSHIP OVER SALT. The social importance ofthe meal, the conviviality that accompanies it, in a warm and friendlyatmosphere, have meaning only in an economic context of scarcity,where abundance is something of an exception, where being able toeat one's fill is cause for celebration, where, even if harvests have beengood, shortages and famine remain genuine threats. Over the courseof centuries, most of humankind has been steeped in such stark tradition.
A Polish proverb says "zjesc z kims beczke soli." Its literal translationis "to have eaten a cask of salt with someone." Thus it carries themeaning of a deep and enduring friendship, one nourished on therelations enjoyed by longtime table companions.
To share bread and salt was and remains the symbolic gesture ofhospitality, of the welcome offered a stranger. Familiarity implies theregular repetition of this gesture. Since salt, this costly, indispensablecommodity, is nonetheless in the end consumed in substantialamountswhether a minot, a bushel or, as in this case, a cask or barrelthefact that one would have shared a great quantity of it comesto signify a lasting friendship.
The fact that volume units rather than weight units are used tomeasure amounts of salt bought or sold most probably relates to itsmeans of production in the saltworks: salt is gathered, like a grain; itthus admits of the same units of measure, that is, the volume measureof dry granular, or powdery foodstuffs such as wheat, oats, barley, oreven lentils. Salt will thus be measured by the muid (cask), feuillette(half-cask), quartaut (quarter-cask), velte, pot, pinte, sétier, demi-sétier, posson,and roquille (one muid is equivalent to 288 pints, or 1,152 sétiers; thequartaut is one-quarter of a muid; the velte is 16 sétiers, and the sétier is4 possons and 16 roquilles).
FOOD PRESERVATION. These ancien régime units of measure havebecome obsolete. But salt-cured foods are still around. When shoppingat the supermarket, we are unlikely to register that we are visitinga museum of technology. But, unlike other sectors of the economyinsound reproduction, compact discs and DVDs have hardlyleft any room for LPs and 78sthe food trade is conservative!
To be found side by side on your grocer's shelves are dry sausagesand other salt-cured foods whose origin goes back at least to the MiddleAges, canned goods (invented by Nicholas Appert between 1795and 1810), refrigerated packaged goods (though Romans already usedrefrigeration, industrial refrigeration was developed during the courseof the nineteenth century), pasteurized foods, such as milk, beer, andnumerous cheeses (the technique invented by Pasteur dates back tothe 1880s), extracts of meat broth (another chemist, Justus von Liebig,reinvented Lavoisier's method of dehydration in the first half of thenineteenth century), dried fruits (dating back to antiquity), frozen orfreeze-dried foods (both techniques date from the second half of thetwentieth century), condensed milk (invented by Gail Borden in1856), and more.
All these methods have in common the sterilization of foods(pasteurization) or at the very least the slowing of bacterial proliferation(frozen foods). It is also often important to deactivate certainenzymes, those present in meat, for example. In fact, proteins are theingredients made inactive by subjecting food to a high or low temperature,by changing the acidity of its surrounding environment(pickles or onions in vinegar), or by salting it. High concentrationsof salt (cod or ham) or of sugar (jams) are toxic for many microorganisms.
Spoiled foods can be dangerous because of the multiplication ofinfectious microorganisms such as E. coli and Clostridium botulinum,which produce highly poisonous toxins. Keeping the temperature lowenough (below -25°C) prevents this last bacillus from multiplying andsecreting botulin, one of the most toxic substances known.
We owe a certain number of food preservation techniques to themilitary. In 1795 France, the Directoirethe government at thetimeoffered a prize to the inventor of an effective method of foodpreservation. After a good many attempts, Appert recognized thatheating must be combined with excluding air from a hermeticallysealed container. Napoleon awarded him the prize in 1810 after theFrench Navy confirmed that Appert's rations survived 130 days at seawithout spoiling.
Across the Channel, from 1814 on, the British Army and Navy alsosupplied their men based overseas with canned goods: in 1810 PeterDurand received a patent from George III for his canning technique,which was developed and marketed by Bryan Donkin and John Hall.
Excerpted from salt by PIERRE LASZLO. Copyright © 1998 by Hachette Littératures.
Translation copyright © 2001 Columbia University Press.Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.