Tuesday 26 November 2013

WORTH YOUR SALT? – Dianne Hofmeyr

Imagine a lake so pink, it’s the colour of a flamingo feather. Picture it surrounded by white, crystal mountains, glistening and sparkling in the sunlight. Out in the middle of the lake there are small boats and people wading through the pink as one would wade through a strawberry milkshake in a dream, their limbs etched dark against the reflection and glitter. Sunglasses might help bring this surreal world into focus. This is Lac Rose or Lake Retba in Senegal and these are salt gatherers. It’s the 21st century.

You sit at a dinner table. Your host is Charles V of France. You are Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor. You glance down towards your son, King Wenceslas, who will inherit your title and who sits further down the table. In front of him is the nef, the jewelled salt cellar in the shape of a ship – both salt cellar and a symbol of the ship of state that declares the stability of a nation. Your host, the King of France has been wise if somewhat indecisive. He has had three nefs of gold forged and placed them strategically in front not only of himself but in front of you as well as your son. It’s the 14th century. 

‘There is no better food than salted vegetables' are the words written on an ancient papyrus. You are a priest preparing the tomb for an important Egyptian body. Preserving the food is as important as preserving the body. You know salts present in desert sand preserve flesh. Protein unwinds when exposed to salt. Salting resembles cooking. Were it not for your aversion to pigs you would have probably invented ham, instead you content yourself with preserving olives in salt and you dry and salt and press the eggs of mullet to create a food that will later become known as bottarga. It is 4000 BC.

You are part of a think tank. A substance needed by all humans for good health must surely make a good tax generator. Everyone has to buy salt. A tax on salt is the answer. A few centuries later some of your Chinese compatriots will find that mixing potassium nitrate, a salt otherwise known as saltpetre with sulphur and carbon will create a powder that when ignited will produce an explosion. But for now, you are dealing in salt more urbane – salt found under the ground in the form of brine. As yet you don’t know that by the 11th century, the salt producers of Sichuan will develop percussion drilling for retrieving salt brine and will be using bamboo piping which is salt resistant to transport the brine to boiling houses where it will be reduced to salt crystals. These salt crystals aren’t added to food by sprinkling but with a salt-based sauce. Fish and soybeans are fermented with salt in earthernware pots. It’s about 500 BC but in time the fish is removed and only the beans are used. The sauce becomes known as jiangyou or soy sauce as we know it today.

You’re a Roman soldier and paid in salt. Rome not wanting to be dependent on Etruscan salt from the northern bank of the Tiber, starts its own saltworks on the river in Ostia, and the first Roman road is built, the Via Salaria, the Salt Road to bring the salt to Rome. The Latin word sal becomes the French word solde which is the origin of soldier and Roman salted vegetables gives us the word salad today. The Romans much like the Chinese, devise a sauce where fish scraps are put in earthernware jars with layers of salt and made into a type of garum. Sardines which derive their name from a fish caught and cured in Sardinia are favoured for garum. It’s 640 BC. By Pliny’s time salt is being used to extract the purple dye, murex, from this tiny whelk and Cleopatra can demand enough of this expensive colourant to dye the sails of her warship purple.

You are a Celt moving southwards across central Europe. You are a salt miner who chisels tunnels into rugged mountains, called a Celt by the Greeks, meaning one who lives in hiding – but known as a Gaul by the Romans and Egyptians, which comes from the word hal, meaning salt. You have sacked Rome travelling on horseback with heavy swords when Western Europe has never before seen mounted cavalry. Some years later you invade what is now known as Turkey. You are tall, blond and often red-bearded and your women wear braids and bright clothing. You sell salt. It is you who devises a method of salting pig to create the finest hams. It’s 390 BC.

Herring is the dominant fish in the booming medieval markets, so much so that you, who are salt fish dealers in Paris, are called harengères, herring sellers. But it is the Basques who, on their whaling expeditions discover a northern fish that is to take Europe by storm. It is white and fatless, therefore easier to cure. It is cod. The Vikings have been air-drying it for centuries but they have no salt. The Basques have salt – plenty of it. The baccalà industry is born. It’s the 9th century

Salt becomes the engine of both Venetian and Genoese trade. Venice tries to dominate the salt industry by buying salt from as far away as the Crimea and Cyprus while Genoa has its salt industry in Ibiza. Prosciutto makers use salt from the salt wells of Salsomaggiore. Cheesemakers use salt from Venice and Genoa. The opening up of the Atlantic sea route makes a giant out of Genoa. Venice is left behind. Christopher Columbus himself is born in Genoa. It’s the 15th Century.

I’ve sprinkled and steeped you briefly in salt’s history across the ages, now look out for the book SALT – a History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, who has also written a book about COD and another on The Basque History of the World. Every page is fascinating.

You won’t find anything about a pink lake in the book but it does exist. I saw it 20 years ago in Senegal. I’m sure it’s as pink as ever made so by an algae in the water that produces a red pigment. I’m sure the salt gatherers are still out there today smeared in shea butter to protect their bodies from the sting, as they wade through the briny mix in the glare, without sunglasses, in tattered clothing and mismatched shoes. Even in the 21st century, it’s the salt workers who still lack everything – except salt.



The Magic Bojabi Tree is on the nomination list for the 2014 Kate Greenaway Award.


michelle lovric said...

How wonderful! I want to wade in strawberry milkshake sea too.

Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely fascinating! I feel as if I've just travelled through time - even without a Tardis!

Susan Price said...

Di - thank you! I was completely gripped by this from the moment I started reading!

Unknown said...

Dianne, that was fascinating! I enjoyed reading how salt was such a global "industry" through the ages. I think a pink lake would make a great story setting, too.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks for the comments. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed dipping into this book. So much on every page... even recipes, both ancient and modern. And I wondered if once when you wrote on the baccala fishermen, Michelle, if it was something you'd read in his book COD?

Maria McCann said...

This looks fascinating. Thank you. I saw women digging for salt in the Gambia, working all day under the hot sun (this was an inland village, significantly hotter than the coastal area where most visitors stay). Men didn't do that kind of work, though they dashed up and began to pose as if digging when they saw I was taking photos.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Interesting Maria because it was definitely all women wading in carrying the heavy loads of salt in Senegal but the men did the scooping up from the lake and loading onto the boats. I wonder which of the two jobs was more desirable?

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

I need a glass of water after that . . .