The history of salt, appetizingly told

January 06, 2002|By Donna Crivello | By Donna Crivello,Special to the Sun

Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. Walker & Company. 484 pages. $28.

Do we really know about salt? There it sits rather meekly on the dining table sharing a position with pepper. We reach for it to make our food taste better, even though we're cautioned against it, and some of us have recently found new respect for its pure form: fleur de sel. Perhaps some our sketchy memory of history might bring up the salt wars, or even Gandhi's salt marches.

From earliest recorded history, salt was at the center of the world economy. Controlling salt meant wealth and power. Early Egyptians made salt by evaporating seawater in the Nile Delta. For ancient Romans, salt was not only in their meats, fish and wine, but in their purses, since they were paid in the form of salt -- hence "salary" or "worth his salt."

If you are drawn to history and curious about the origins of foods, allow Mark Kurlansky to take you on an incredible journey through centuries by way of salt.

Salt, A World History, does read much like a history textbook, chronologically structured in three parts with 23 chapters rather provocatively titled. From the "discourse on salt, cadavers and pungent sauces" to the "odium of sodium" Kurlansky has a story to tell and he doesn't overestimate our background knowledge of history. The book has been extensively researched and is so packed with information you might find yourself highlighting and tabbing pages.

The text is embellished with archival engravings, drawings, maps and photographs. There is an engraving from the late Middle Ages of a wheel powered by prisoners who used to pump brine at Salsomaggiore (an Italian town named for its salt). The early days of salt harvesting were brutal and downright inhumane, but the quest continued.

Every European country needed salt. Methods for finding and harvesting it are the basis of the story. After the Italian and Spanish explorers discovered the Americas and Atlantic cod, the demand for salt was insatiable. The trading of foods like salted cod and herring preserved with salt became more dear than salt alone.

As a bonus for those of us who love to read arcane recipes, Kurlansky provides a collection of at least 15 methods and formulas, dating as far back as the ancient Sichuan recipe for pickled vegetables that is still used today, to Archestratus, a Sicilian-born fourth century B.C. Greek poet and gourmet with his recommendation for the salting of tuna. And a recipe for a sea bass in a salt crust is worthy of a try.

Once refrigeration became the primary way to preserve foods, salt was no longer in such great demand. But in the early 1900s, the Morton Salt Co. created a new identity with a free-flowing salt of similarly sized crystals by adding magnesium carbonate to table salt, creating a most memorable marketing campaign with the little girl, an umbrella and a box of salt.

Today the United States is the largest producer and salt consumer. It is surprising that only 8 percent of that is for seasoning food. The largest single use of American salt (51 percent) is for deicing roads.

Perhaps a rather uncomely ending to a fascinating story, but take refuge in the idea of traveling around the world to salt flats in Trapani, Sicily, the Camargue in France or even as close as the supermarket to bring home little packages of history ... uneven, irregular chunks of sea salt to place in a cellar next to your pepper.

Donna Crivello, former design director of The Sun, now co-owns and operates Donna's Coffee Bars and Cafes in Baltimore, Annapolis and D.C. She teaches cooking classes, and travels to Europe with her husband collecting recipes and sea salt.

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