By Leslie Bilderback, Teri Lyn Fisher
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Leslie Bilderback
All rights reserved.
SALTS OF THE WORLD
A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF SALT
SALT AND ECONOMICS
SALT AND SPIRITUALITY
WHAT IS SALT?
SALT DESERTS, MARSHES, AND DUNES
COOKING WITH SALT
HOW SALTS DIFFER
This book is about cooking with salt. But my philosophy has always been that knowing the history of a food makes cooking it much more enjoyable. And for professional chefs, not knowing a food's history makes you a bad practitioner. The history of salt has already been well documented in several best-selling tomes, with which I am loath to compete. (If you have not already read it, run out and buy Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.) With that in mind, however, please allow me to offer just a few facts that will make your salty exploration more meaningful.
SALT AND ECONOMICS
Salt has been important to humankind for millennia — probably since the first civilizations sprung up along the edges of deserts spotted with salt deposits. Salt not only immediately made everything tastier, it became vital to food preservation (as you will learn in the section Curing with Salt). It also became important in the production of leather, textiles, and as a pain remedy. Human health depends on salt, too. And although early peoples couldn't have known to what extent, it was likely clear that life was better when they had salt. Thus began the economic chapter of salt's history.
Early wars were fought for salty territories, and saltworks have been key targets in wartime, including during the American Civil War. Slaves were traded for it (if they were worth their salt). Roman legionnaires were probably not really paid with it, although it makes a good story about the origin of the word salary. Salt taxes were levied in most countries; the first we know of were in China in the third century BC. Salt became an essential commodity that offered great power to those that controlled it — a fact that fueled more than one revolution (Gandhi's Salt March, the French Gabelle, The Moscow Salt Riot). Revenue from salt taxes funded everything from the British Monarchy to the Erie Canal.
The salt trade plied notably, and early, by the Phoenicians, helped create new roads, trade routes, ports, and cities. The Via Salaria is considered by some historians to be the reason Rome exists at all. First it delivered the Sa-bines to the salt pans of Ostia (Porta Salaria at the Aurelian Walls), then it extended out to the Adriatic. Cheshire County in England has been an important salt-producing region since medieval times, and Liverpool became hugely important (long before the Beatles) as the main conduit of salt from Cheshire. Munich rose to power by controlling the trade of salt from Salzburg (literally "salt mountain"). Poland's wealth and prominence in the sixteenth century were similarly due to profit from local salt mines.
SALT AND SPIRITUALITY
It should be no surprise that something wielding so much power and wealth would, eventually, be given spiritual significance. The Old and New Testaments repeatedly use salt as a parable (Lot's wife, salt of the earth, salvation). The evil of Judas is telegraphed as he knocks over the salt in Da Vinci's depiction of the Last Supper. Salt was used in Greek ritual sacrifice and Jewish temple offerings. Buddhists use it to repel bad spirits, and, as such, it is a very important element of a sumo wrestling match. Shinto use salt to purify, Indians offer it as a symbol of good luck, and natives of the American Southwest worshipped the Salt Mother.
I can understand the negative connotations of salt. My nicked hands sting with every salty application. And as a kid, my mom let me pour salt on the slugs that were destroying our garden. Salt has been used to destroy agricultural land, and also as a defense against icy roads. Still, despite the havoc salt can wreak, it remains to me a symbol of love. Food is made better by salt, and by association, so are meals. And the better the meal, the more love gathers at the table. Good food brings my kids home, and for that I am eternally grateful to salt.
Eating together. Brotherly and sisterly love.
Salt is awesome.
WHAT IS SALT?
Salt comes from the sea. Both the seas we have today, and ancient seas long gone. We extract it from bodies of salt water, from the center of mountains, or from dried-up deserts, all of which contain the minerals of the sea, including NaCL, sodium chloride — a.k.a. salt.
The majority of the world's salt production is performed by a handful of companies, primarily in China, the United States, and India, with smaller but still ample production happening in Germany, Austria, Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil. Most of it comes from rock salt mining (about 70 percent), and the rest is harvested from seawater and lake pans. But these industrial giants, though impressive, are not what this book is about. We are, as culinarians, more interested in the smaller producers — and there are plenty. Almost every country on Earth has some type of salt production, if only to supply the local population. To know and appreciate local salt artisans will, in turn, help us know and appreciate their local history, cuisine, and culture. And an appreciation of another culture is the first step in understanding and tolerance.
In other words, salt is totally the gateway to world peace.
So, in that spirit, let's learn a little more about salt.
As I mentioned, all salt comes from the sea. But it is the salt from our modern, liquid seas that is generally called sea salt. To reveal its salt, the seawater must be evaporated. This can be done in several ways. Simply boiling the seawater is a tried-and-true method. I did this in my kitchen with Pacific water from up the California coast. (Not LA water — that would be gross.) Boiling seawater has a long tradition. You can visit Seaside, Oregon, where Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery boiled seawater for two months straight, producing almost 30 gallons of salt for their trip home. (This scene is reenacted for your amusement every August.) A similar method of salt production began at Cape Cod after a Revolutionary War embargo was instituted on salt imported from Liverpool. By the mid-1800s Cape Cod was home to at least 700 saltworks. The Vikings poured salt water over burning logs, then scraped up the salt when the fires extinguished. In the Middle Ages the salt makers on the Danish Laeso Island boiled salt water in hundreds of wood-burning salt kilns. Precolonial Mesoamericans were harvesting salt in a similar manner from the sea in coastal Michoacán and Colima. The Romans boiled salt in lead pans, which have been found by archeologists throughout the Empire. Coastal European Bronze Age cultures boiled salt water in ceramic jars known as briquetage (see Glossary). Traces of these ceramics have turned up far afield, pointing to a vast salt trade network. Briquetage dating to the early Neolithic age have been found in Romania, which is currently considered the earliest known salt production facility, dating to 6050 BC.
In warmer regions of the world salt was harvested using only natural sun and wind to evaporate the water. Many of these facilities still function, and have boomed in recent years, thanks in part to culinary demand. The first salt to receive widespread culinary attention comes from Guérande, on the Atlantic coast of France. The salt in this region has been harvested in the same manner since the Middle Ages. Shallow pools sit in the sun, and when the time is right (May through September) the delicate top layer of crystals is removed by hand with a specialized wooden rake. This layer is called "flower of the sea," or fleur de sel in French. Despite what they will tell you in Guérande, a good flower of the sea does not need to be French. Perfectly wonderful versions are created along many other coastlines — all along the coast of Brittany, in the Algarve region of Portugal, the Ebro Delta in Spain, the province of Trapani, Sicily, the Lagoon of Cuyutlán in Mexico, and in Phetchaburi, Thailand, you can find unique flowers of the sea. The natural evaporation of these salts typically yields a lower-sodium and higher-mineral content than rock or boiled salt. The historic evaporation pools and the traditional methods of harvesting by hand are appealing to consumers interested in artisan techniques, landing these salts in the top dining rooms of the world.
After flower of the sea is harvested, there is still residual salt that sinks to the bottom of the pools. This is called "grey salt," or sel gris in French. Its grayish color comes from contact with the silt at the bottom of the salt pan. More moist and oceanic in flavor, grey salt is cheaper, too. As a result it is more commonly used by chefs as an everyday salt.
In cooler regions, production may start with the sun, then finish evaporating in covered salt sun houses (as is done by Maine Sea Salt Company, and San Juan Island Sea Salt in Washington State), or through the application of heat, either by fire (as in Japanese agehama style salt, Maldon of Essex, Halen Môn in Wales, and Laeo Island in Denmark). The technique can be carefully regulated to produce specific sizes of salt grains, from very fine, to coarse, to large delicate pyramidal crystals.
These coastal saltworks were historically set up in areas with a coastline that was inset or otherwise protected from the raging sea. They would have needed a steady fuel source nearby with which to dry the salt — either a reliable sun, wood, or another cheap fuel source. It also helped to have another industry nearby that relied on the salt, such as tanning or livestock (salt is used in meat preservation).
Some of these saltworks remain, and their daily salt-making tasks are carried out with reverence. Other sites use the same basic technique to push millions of tons of salt around on giant mountains with tractors onto barges for transport around the world. These large operations fulfill mostly industrial use, but also supply what we know as table salt — something from which you will soon be forever free.
Rock salt, mountain salt, mined salt, fossil salt, and marine fossil salt are all names for the same thing — inland salt. Not only inland from the sea, but literally in-the-land. How did salt get into the earth, you ask? There were once bodies of saltwater connected to the sea by narrow channels. Eventually, the sea connection was cut off and over time evaporation concentrated the water's salt content. The salt settled to the bottom, layering over time with other minerals. (They fall to the bottom in order of solubility, so geologists can predict the presence of salt based on the presence of these other mineral layers.) As geological activity shifted the Earth's crust, salt deposits moved, thrusting upward into mountain ranges, or making other unique formations, like salt domes and salt walls. Most of these primordial oceans are found in the Northern Hemisphere.
If salt deposits found their way to the surface, they were dissolved by rain or groundwater. This salty runoff then flowed down, creating underground brine, also known as saline springs. It is these springs that attracted early humans, and most early settlements were situated around such salty sources. Solnitsata, Bulgaria, the oldest town in Europe (a title that is not without controversy) was established around such briny springs between 4700 and 4200 BC.
Salty bodies of water still exist in some parts of the world. These nondraining, stationary waters are found in dry areas with limited rainfall. The water evaporates faster than it is replenished, and so the salt content increases. You can visit some of these lakes — Lake Assal in Djibouti, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the Dead Sea, Garabogazköl, a lagoon at the eastern edge of the Caspian Sea — and float effortlessly in their thick salty waters. Alas, you probably cannot visit the saltiest body of water in the world, Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, which has a sodium content of 40 percent. (However, I highly recommend you Google it, so we can get to the bottom of its name.) Salt lakes still provide salt in some areas, and are often coveted for their culinary and healing properties.
SALT DESERTS, MARSHES, AND DUNE FIELDS
When evaporation of a salt lake has exceeded precipitation over millions of years, a salt desert (also called salt pan, or salt flat) occurs. Found primarily between mountain ranges, the most famous salt flats include Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, Namibia's Etosha pan, and Utah's Bonneville Flats. These sites are host to both the salt industry and tourists, due in large part to an unusual eco-diversity (flamingos are a common sight, as they are specially adapted to salty water), and a huge flat landscape that calls out to speed racers.
Some locations, like the sabkhas of Tunisia and Algeria, are considered salt marshes, because they fill temporarily with several feet of water during the region's rainy season, making them impassable. Dune fields, like those found in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, occur when evaporation leaves tiny pools behind. Water from rain or underground springs fills in the space between crests of dunes. Salt is extracted from locations such as these by cutting blocks out of the crust, or, in some cases, blowing it out with explosives. Desert salt has long been a commodity. Early trade routes were established from North Africa across the Sahara to the Niger River, through which salt could be exchanged ounce for ounce with gold.
Overlooking Bolivia's Uyuni Salt Desert is the Hotel de Sal Luna Salada. There you can sit at the salt bar sipping salty drinks as you look out over the salt flats, then retire to your salt bed for what will be, no doubt, salty dreams.
The world's oldest known salt mine is in Hallstatt, Austria, where mining began during the late Neolithic period. You can visit the museum there and see the Neolithic axes and Bronze Age hammers and picks used to remove the salt. Today, salt mines extract salt one of two ways. It can be cut and blasted out, or it can be extracted through controlled solution mining, which is the more common method today. Holes are drilled into the rock salt deposits and water is pumped in. The rock dissolves into a briny solution that is pumped out and evaporated. You can see this in action, because many of the world's salt mines have been given second lives as tourist attractions. The Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan is a major draw. It was supposedly discovered by Bucephalous (Alexander the Great's horse) who wouldn't stop licking the rocks. There, you can see a number of artistic salt constructs, including a salt mosque and a salt Great Wall of China. In Poland, the Wieliczka Mine, which produced table salt from the thirteenth century until 2007, has a salt "Last Supper." In Kansas you can visit the Strataca underground salt museum, a site discovered by mistake in the 1880s while drilling for oil. There kids can have underground campouts, and adults can participate in Mine Murder Mystery dinners. And in Berchtesgaden you can slide down the banister and float across the laser-embellished Mirror Lake.
COOKING WITH SALT
Salt's purpose, like a fork, is multipronged. First and foremost, it is meant to enhance flavor. When used properly, it should not make food taste salty, but rather bring out the natural essence of the food. But historically salt's importance centered on its preservative capability. Salt leaches water out of foods, eliminating the hospitable moist environment needed for the growth of mold and bacteria. It is not only the drying that is important, though. A salty environment also prevents the survival of pathogenic organisms. This was, as you can imagine, key in the prefridge era.
But today, with our ultrafood consciousness, salt is being added as its own ingredient. Smoky salts, salts infused with clay or charcoal, herby and spicy salts, salt with extra umami or a hint of sugar are being added to layer more flavor, and not simply to enhance the flavors already there. And it is not just the tongue that gets to partake. Colorful salts add visual interest to dishes, and varying textures are adding crunch. Not only does your salad get a burst of flavor, but it looks different, and has a new mouthfeel. As you will find in the recipe chapters to come, salt is now a featured player.
HOW SALTS DIFFER
Just as beef tastes different in Oklahoma, Japan, and Argentina, so, too, varies the flavor of salt. The difference in climate, soil, mineral deposits, flora, and fauna vary both on land and sea, and all impart specific flavors to salt.
In general, salt that is harvested from inland deposits is saltier than sea salt. It is also harder, which makes sense if you think about it being compressed under layers of dinosaurs for millennia. Sea salt is almost fluffy in comparison. Of course, these facts vary, too. For instance, Murray River salt from Australia is extracted through natural brine from prehistoric sediments, but their evaporation process makes it one of the lightest, fluffiest salts on the market. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Salt by Leslie Bilderback, Teri Lyn Fisher. Copyright © 2016 Leslie Bilderback. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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