The importance of salt throughout history
Almost no place on earth is without salt, though this was not clear until revealed by modern geology, in the twentieth century. Until then, salt was desperately searched for, traded for, and fought over. For millennia salt represented wealth. Soldiers and sometimes workers were paid in salt; it was a substance so valuable it served as currency. Salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes, helped with the preservation of food, has helped in the development of both chemistry and geology, is seen as a symbol in religion, and has been associated with love. Today, after thousands of years of, coveting, fighting over, hoarding, taxing, and searching for salt, it appears picturesque, and slightly foolish. Salt became one of the first international commodities of trade, its production was one of the first industries, and in return, the first state monopoly.
Europeans are a very good example of how salt aided in the preservation of food, and therefore allowed foods to be traded. In the ninth century, the Basques had a well-established whaling business, and were visited by an intruder, the Vikings. The Vikings did not have a central location like Genoa or Venice, and their northern home provided them with little to trade. If they had had a source of salt, they would have been able to trade salted meats like the Celts, or salted fish like the Phoenicians. Without salt, meat and fish were too perishable to trade. Although the Vikings were superb ship builders, mariners, and traders, it didn’t matter. Without salt, all the Vikings had to trade were tools made from walrus tusk and reindeer antler.
Up until about the twentieth century, all valuable food depended upon whether it could be preserved by salt or not. They knew all sorts of facts and tricks about salt curing. For example, Europeans found that fat resists salt and slows the rate at which salt impregnates fish. Also, oily fish, after salting, must be pressed tightly in barrels to be preserved, whereas cod can be simply laid in salt, and that fatty fish cannot be exposed to air in curing, because the fat will become rancid. In the ninth century, the Basques discovered an extremely profitable item, the Atlantic cod. Once they started salting it, the market became enormous. The entire formerly Roman world ate salt fish, which is what made this fish great for trading. It preserved unusually well, and after one or more days of soaking in fresh water, it was whiter, leaner, and better, than the Mediterranean species that had been used before. Cod, being a fatless fish, air-dried and salt-cured, and stiff as planks of wood, could be stacked on wagons and hauled over roads, even in warm Mediterranean climates. Without salt that would have never been possible, and the trading market grew immensely because of it. The Vikings also found ways to trade salt cod, and even began establishing drying stations for the cod in Iceland, to produce the export.
All of the fishing nations of northern Europe wanted to participate in the new, rapidly growing, extremely profitable salt cod market. Because of how popular the market was, like now with supply and demand, the more the people wanted it, the more they would make. In order for the Europeans to make more, they needed quicker and more efficient ways of supplying salt. Through geology and chemistry, Europeans began to recognize that the natural solar evaporation of seawater was the most cost-effective way to produce salt. The Bay of Bourgneuf soon became the leading salt center, because its climate suited the new discovery of solar evaporated salt. The bay also had the advantage of being located on the increasingly important Atlantic coast and was connected to a river that could carry the salt inland. Guerande on the north side of the mouth of Loire River, Bourgneuf on the southern side, and the island of Noirmoutier facing them, became major sea salt-producing areas. Just like that, salt could influence and secure a city, because for the time being that’s where the highest demand of salt was. While this market was booming, the Basques continued to sail out with their enormous amounts of salt, and return with them stacked high with cod. They dominated the fast-growing salt cod market. Everyone knew of this market: but besides the Basques, fisherman of the British Isles, Scandinavia, Holland, Brittany, and the French Atlantic, also caught cod in the middle ages.
Salt is mainly recognized for preserving food, but it was used for many other things, like to cure leather, clean chimneys, for soldering pipes, and glaze pottery. Salt was used also as a medicine for a wide variety of complaints, from toothaches, to upset stomachs, to ‘heaviness of the mind.’ Still, the salt cod market was the main reason the need for sea salt increased enormously. Sea salt was believed to be the only salt suitable for cuing fish, but there were other salts out there. French bay salt was gray, black or even green. The better salts were the Northern salts made from boiling peat, and the southern salts that were far whiter, which meant purer. Salt was so valuable, it could shape society, and was separated by classes. A higher class household used bay salt for curing, but would use the more costly, Northern and Southern white salt for the table. Middle-class homes bought the inexpensive bay salt, dissolved it into brine, and boiled the brine over a fire until it was more suitable for serving. The British used the cheaper bay salt for their armies. To them, salt was regarded as of strategic importance because salt cod became one of the main rations of the British navy. A standard procedure to prepare for war was to obtain a large quantity of salt and start salting fish and meat. The provisions necessary to withstand a long siege were herring, eels, bream, and cod, all salted.
Throughout history, even before salt was so valuable, and such a huge product in trade, people realized the importance of it. Romans called a man in love salax, in a salted state. In Pyrenees, bridal couples went to the church with salt in their left pockets to guard against impotence. In Germany the bride’s shoes were sprinkled with salt. ‘A French folktale relates the story of a princess who declares to her father, “I love you like salt,” and he, angered by the slight, banishes her from the kingdom. Only later when he is denied salt does he realize its value and therefore the depth of his daughter’s love.’ Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought- after commodities in human history. Religion has been shaped around salt too. Salt was to the ancient Hebrews, and still is to modern Jews, the symbol of the eternal nature of god’s covenant, with Israel. In the Torah, the book of numbers it written in “it is a covenant of salt forever before the lord.” On Friday nights Jews dipped the Sabbath bread in salt. In Judaism bread is a symbol of food, which is a gift from god and dipping the bread in salt preserves it – keeps the agreement between god and his people. All over the world, from food to religion, to armies, salt has had an impact on it.
The incentive of salt cod profits, combined with the improved solar evaporation, greatly improved sea salt production, especially in Europe. This increase in salt made more fish available, and made them available longer. Instead of fisherman having to rush to the market before their fish rotted, they could now stay out for days salting their catch. They caught more, and were able to keep it fresher longer. The salt intake in Europeans, although most of it was consumed in the eating of fish, grew from forty grams per day in the sixteenth century, to seventy grams a day in the eighteenth century. ‘Salt, the only rock we eat, has made a glittering, often surprising contribution to the history of humankind.’