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Salt, A World History

A lively history of a now common commodity

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Imagine a hundred years from now walking into a bank where they hand out free small packets of gold. Most of us would be stunned at how such a valuable commodity could become so invaluable. Yet this is precisely how our ancestors would view the salt packages at fast food places. Salt was once one of humanity's most valued commodities.

In Salt, A World History, author and historian Mark Kurlansky takes us through the fascinating, intricate past of common salt. Wars have been fought over salt. Cities and cultures have been shaped by salt. Egyptians used salt to mummify. The Great Wall of China was funded by salt revenues. Salt was used as money in some cultures; the impetus for trade routes in others.

The production of salt is thought to have been developed by the Celts who conquered much of Europe, including Rome in 390 BC, France, northern Spain, and the British Isles, from their base territories in lands which are now Hungary, Austria, and Germany. Later, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar conquered most of the Celtic lands, including France which was known as Gaul, from a Greek word hal, meaning salt. The Gauls were the salt people. The Romans returned to Rome with Celtic ham, which became part of the Roman diet.

At the height of their civilization Romans salted their greens to counteract the bitterness, a practice which became the origin of the word salad or salted. Olives, preserved in salt, were a staple of the Roman diet. Salted bluefin tuna was a specialty of Sicily by 241 BC.

By the Middle Ages in Europe, placing salt on the table was a rich man's luxury, but salted foods were commonplace. Kurlansky writes in the book, "In 1268, the Livre des metiers, the Book of Trades, which listed the rules of the cooking profession, said that cooked meat could only be kept for three days unless it had been salted." Salted food was important in the Age of Discovery when the British navy opened sauerkraut stores in port cities so "all Royal Navy vessels could set sail provisioned with sauerkraut," which was thought to prevent scurvy. Europeans found salt production was well established in the Americas: the Incas had salt wells outside Cuzco, and the Mayans employed solar evaporation to produce salt.

Even recently, salt has had its hand in history. In the last century, Kurlansky recounts the nonviolent struggle in India of Mohandas Gandhi against the restrictive British salt laws.

Kurlansky reveals why women in some cultures were not allowed to preserve meats, and how corned beef got its name. At the end, he discusses the current popularity of unusual and expensive sea salt among professional chefs and gourmands and then notes with irony how Morton, the world's largest salt company, bought La Baleine, a French sea salt company in 1996.

Salt doesn't dash through history nor is it strictly dry, food history, but the book offers an exhaustive study of a familiar commodity. Kurlansky does a masterful job of sprinkling facts with entertaining trivia to produce a riveting story, which would prove diverting to any diligent reader.

Gourmet Salt

After reading Salt you may want to experiment with different varieties of salt. The following can be found at gourmet shops or online. (Prices may vary.) Sea salt is best served in a traditional bowl since, without preservatives, it can become slightly damp or clog salt mills. To grind natural sea salt, use a grinder with a porcelain grinding mechanism.

Fleur du Sel M. Hervy are the light, delicate crystals from the marsh beds near Guerande, Brittany frequently mentioned by Martha Stewart and chefs on the Food network. Fleur de sel, or flower of salt, is considered the cream of sea salt. $11 for 250 grams, $23.95 for 500 grams.

Sea Star Sea Salt are 100 percent natural light gray crystals from the Sea of Brittany in France, naturally dried, retaining iodine, minerals, and trace elements nutrients. The company is owned by Chef Holly Peterson Mondavi, who is the sister of legendary American winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett (maker of Screaming Eagle among other wines) and wife of winegrower Tim Mondavi (of Robert Mondavi Winery). She has worked in a Michelin three star restaurant and teaches food and wine dynamics at The Culinary Institute of American at Greystone. 12 ounces for $16; 11/2 pounds for $23.95.

Ittica d'Or is from the saltpans along the western Sicilian coast that have been producing sea salt for well over a thousand years. It is unrefined and has naturally occurring magnesium, calcium, and potassium. 300 grams for $5.50.

Ravida Sea Salt is also from the western coast of Sicily. Saltpans are filled with seawater in the spring and left to evaporate in the sun and wind. 500 grams $11

Hawaiian Alaea Sea Salt. British sea captain James Cook reported that salt on Hawaii was excellent except from the island of Kauai where the people mixed salt with a local volcano red clay, alaea, which is red from the high iron content. Originally, this salt was used for ritual blessings, not as table salt; but today Alaea is sought by professional chefs and gourmets. 1 pound for $9.95.

Halen Mon or Cwmni Halen Mor Mon from The Anglesey Sea Salt Company is a 100 percent natural, hand produced white sea salt harvested from the Atlantic waters surrounding the Isle of Anglesey, Wales. Contains trace elements that are present in seawater: magnesium, zinc, calcium, potassium, and iodine 250 grams for $11.50.

La Baleine, Salins du Midi, a Mediterranean sea salt produced in the Aigues-Mortes saltworks, in Camarque, France since 1856. In 1996 the company was bought by Morton Salt. Salt has been produced on this site since before the Roman occupation. This salt has added iodine and fluorine as per the standards of UNICEF and the French ministry of Health. $3.50 for 1 pound.

Sel Marin a natural French sea salt from the Atlantic Ocean, also known as Celtic gray salt. 35 ounces $6.

RealSalt from Utah is not freshly harvested from the sea, but rather from Jurassic-era salt deposits. This salt is produced without chemicals, additives, or heat processing and contains naturally occurring trace minerals such as calcium, potassium, sulfur, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, copper, iodine and zinc. $4.99 for 1.66 pounds. 800-367-7258.

Celtic Sea Salt harvested by a cooperative of farmers in Brittany, France and imported by The Grain & Salt Society in Asheville. See their website for prices: www.celtic-seasalt.com.

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