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In antiquity, salt was a precious commodity. Marco Polo reported that in Tibet cakes of salt were pressed with images of their ruler and used as currency.
Salt bars were used as currency of exchange for more than 1000 years in Ethiopia and travellers report that some are still circulating among the nomads of the Danakil plains.
In ancient Greece, slaves were traded for salt, and unruly slave was not “worth his salt”. Romans paid legionnaires to enable them to purchase salt – a ‘salarium argentum’ – from which the word “salary” originates.
Chinese emperor Hsia Yu (2200 BC) was the first to levy a tax on salt. This was also the first tax ever. Since then, practically everything is taxed, including public toilets in the Roman empire.
In France, the notorious salt tax (la gabelle) was partially responsible for the eruption of the French revolution on 1789.
Salt was much more valuable in the past than it is now. Before refrigeration, salt was the main ingredient to preserve food, as it draws water out of bacteria, causing it to shrivel and die. The vast majority of meat, and fish was salted and shipped. Even butter was heavily salted. Our diet today is much lower in salt than it was in the 20th century, but still North American per capita salt consumption is high, since a considerable amount of convenience food contains a lot of sodium chloride.
Chemically, table salt consists of two elements, sodium and chlorine – sodium is a highly unstable metal in presence of water and chlorine a deadly gas. Yet the way salt is combined becomes necessary food for survival. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, pilgrims are given salt tablets and urged to take them daily. Salt does not deteriorate when exposed to oxygen, thus “salt freshness” is an oxymoron. Aging salt serves no purpose.
Chemical laboratories analyzed table salt (rock salt) and sea salt to determine a difference. There was none, yet sea salt tastes better due to other minerals present in seawater.
There are some 14,000 commercial applications for salt ranging from use in pulp-and-paper production to explosives. Ands then of course there is road salt which makes Canada the world’s highest salt consumers with 360kg.
The world’s largest salt mine is in Goderich, Ontario extending several kilometres under Lake Huron., In Canada, salt was at one time sold in blocks, then ground at home, much like roasted coffee beans that are roasted just before grinding for brewing. This way the aromatics of coffee can be appreciated much better.
Salt was put in bowls (salt cellars) which were placed in the middle of a rhomboid table. A guest’s proximity to the host, who sat at the head of the table – “above the salt” or “below the salt” – reflected his/her importance. Once moisture absorbing agents were added, starting early in the 20th century, salt could be sold ground and “salt cellars” were quickly replaced by “salt shakers”.
Since 1949 many governments mandated the addition of iodine, a deficiency which causes goitre, a swelling of the thyroid gland. (goitre used to be prevalent in mountainous inland regions with limited or no access to salt).
Salt is essential to all life; it regulates fluid balance and absolutely necessary for movement , nerve impulses, digestion and healing of wounds. All vertebrates have the same amount of salt in their blood (9 grams per litre) which makes it four times more salty than sea water.
There are several varieties of salt; some are preferred over others.
Unrefined salts from Normandy and Brittany included grey, moist ‘sel gris’, and ‘fleur des sel’, “the champagne of sea salt”, off-white with lacy flakes and slight sweetness.
Maldon, (Essex) salt, harvested from the town of Maldon in England since the middle ages, is excellent.
Refined salts are pure white, but contain less minerals than natural sea salt.
Pinkish Hawaiian salt is coloured with clay containing iron oxides.
Korean bamboo salt is sea salt that is poured into bamboo cylinders which are then plugged with loess clay and roasted over burning pine resin.
Then there is pickling salt, table salt and regular refined sea salt. Kosher salt is rock salt mostly used for pickling.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu
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