The New Gastronome
Salt: A History
by Gaia Do Amaral
by Gaia Do Amaral
Imagine you’ve been put inside a time machine and sent right back to the Roman Empire, to the year 625 B.C. A merchant comes up to you and offers you a deal: 1kg of gold for 1kg of salt. What thoughts would cross your mind? Most likely, you would think that a) he is completely insane and that b) you have never heard of an easier way to make money: “Yes, of course! I give you some salt, and in return, you give me some gold!”. After all, you can just stop by any supermarket and easily find salt for a low price, usually only 0,50 euros per kg. But what if that was no longer an option?
Not only would your food start to taste bland without the help of salt, but you would also lose a host of vital bodily functions. This white mineral is the only rock that humans consume; it’s essential for muscle control, neurotransmission and maintenance of proper fluid balance. But that is not why it became (and stayed!) one of the most essential commodities in our lives. Over the centuries, salt has had different credentials and, for a long time, was even more precious than gold, which explains why our friend the merchant was not out of his mind after all.
According to salt, the history of the world is pretty simple: animals wore paths to salt licks, men followed, trails became roads, and settlements grew beside them. Due to its importance, this white mineral aided in the growth and creation of different civilizations, including the Romans, Chinese, Greeks, and Jews. Due to its value, salt even became the main actor in and the big reason for so many conflicts and wars throughout human history. Its importance started as early as 4700 B.C. when underground deposits were beyond reach, and salt was rarely found on the surface. Being so scarce, it soon turned into the world’s main traditional commodity, becoming the main exchange currency on the market. In fact, Roman soldiers from that time were even paid in salt, which is where the word ‘salary’ originated. The Linguistic influences of salt made their way to French as well: the word sal became the French word salde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word soldier. But let’s get back to our time machine and look at the history of salt in more detail.
Salt in the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire’s history was written based on the lifelong struggle between the privileged patricians and the helpless plebeians, in which the lower class constantly fought to find their voice heard among the loud crowd of the upper class. In order to keep most of their privileges, patricians offered lesser rights to the working class yet insisted that every man had the right to salt. We owe the popular way of referring to salt as “common salt” to this decision.
Patricians and plebeians had insanely different diets. While patricians favoured an elaborate cuisine that mirrored their expensive tastes – exotic dishes, locally caught fish, or hams from Germania and oysters from Britannia. Plebeians, on the other hand, ate bread, cereals, olives and some salty fish. Even so, the Roman government made sure that salt was commonly available and easily affordable for plebeians, therefore maintaining the ruler’s popularity among the people. On the verge of Emperor Augustus’ campaign, this went so far that Augustus collected public support by distributing olive oil and salt to the people.
In 640 B.C., the Romans decided to build their own salt supply. They built a small and shallow pond across the river in Ostia that would hold seawater – from the Tyrrhenian sea – until it was evaporated by the sun, leaving behind salt crystals. The Via Salaria was then built to transport this salt to Rome and the inside of the peninsula. Rome wanted salt to be affordable and as the empire grew, moving salt by roads turned out to be very expensive. An ambitious group of conquerors and builders, the Romans needed salt to be available for their army, their horses and livestock – not simply to consume but also as a way of paying soldiers for their services, which is where the expression “worth his salt” comes from.
The Romans were so obsessed with salt that most of the salt consumed by them was already in their food even before it was acquired at the market. Salt was even added to wine to preserve it in the absence of a cork. It was used in hams and other pork products, a technique that they seemed to have learned from the Celts. And we cannot miss out on talking about one of the most iconic salted Italian products, the prosciutto di Parma. During the 17th and 18th centuries, sailors brought salt from the Adriatic sea to Parma. Parma was the perfect place to produce this typical ham due to its location, since the sea air is trapped by the mountain peaks right before it reaches the area, providing the perfect salty wind needed to age the salted leg. At the time, the drying racks for the hams were specifically arranged east to west to use the natural breeze better.
“Even so, the Roman government made sure that salt was commonly available and easily affordable for plebeians, therefore maintaining the ruler’s popularity among the people.”
From meat to vegetables, the Romans enjoyed salting before consuming. Although their food was said to be extremely salty, table salt was not used much. Instead, table salt mainly was seen as a symbol of a joined agreement, and the absence of a salt shaker or container on the table would have been interpreted as an unfriendly act, causing suspicion.
The Roman Empire grew in size and importance over many years, and salt played an essential role in their expansion, so they made sure to develop saltworks throughout their expanded world and conquered places.
Liberté, Egalité, and the Gabelle for the French Revolution
In 1259, a tax on salt, called gabelle, was implemented to raise money for France’s war. As France grew, so did the tax on salt. By the time Louis XIV ruled the country, it was estimated that this particular tax produced the largest source of revenue for the state. Naturally, there were a few problems with this tax – one of them being that it was said to be a poll tax, but what does that mean? A poll tax is a tax that hits everyone, everywhere, with the same amount of money – poor and rich had to pay the exact same amount. Yet, different regions of France were taxed at different rates, and some were not taxed at all. The distribution and charges were so bewildering that driven by a hunger for power, the government decided to add another one on top of it.
This extra obligation was called sel de devoir, translated to ‘salt of duty’, which forced citizens above the age of eight to buy an additional 7 kg of salt per year. In practice, that meant that a family of four people with both children above the age of eight would have to buy an extra 28 kg of salt per year. A considerable amount of salt that could not even be used to help preserve their food. If they wanted to do so, they had to buy even more salt, and here is why: if the family did not buy more salt, they would not be paying the government its salt taxes; therefore, the state would be losing money… I know; it sounds confusing and nonsensical.
Due to all these crazy rules, salt smuggling became very common, and the government hired specific guards to control the trafficking. These guards were known as the gabelous and often took advantage of their position and searched primarily women. Ironic as it sounds, women were actually the ones who often smuggled salt under their dresses or even used false derrières known as faux culls to hold their salt cargo. Some smugglers would stage fake funerals where coffins were filled with salt, bake loaves of bread consisting of nothing but a thin crust of bread surrounding a salt core, train dogs to carry special jackets filled with salt. People got creative even though salt smuggling had several forms of punishments, ranging from paying an extra fine to imprisonment and death sentences.
“In 1259, a tax on salt, called gabelle, was implemented to raise money for France’s war. As France grew, so did the tax on salt. By the time Louis XIV ruled the country, it was estimated that this particular tax produced the largest source of revenue for the state.”
By 1789, French people had finally had enough. Yes, I am talking about the French Revolution. Of course, it was eventually caused by a complicated web of all sorts of different reasons, but the gabelle was one of them. The unfair taxation and financial burden hoisted on the lower class was a common cause of the general population’s discontent. Finally, the gabelle was voted down, and the French no longer had to pay salt taxes. Unfortunately for the French, their relief was very short-lived. When Napoleon came to power in the early 1800s, he reinstalled the salt tax. After the end of the Second World War, the gabelle was finally entirely abolished in 1946.
Gandhi’s Walk to India’s Independence
Salt was the cause of great rage and revolution also in India. In 1835, provinces in India were taken under the order of British rule. At the time, the British imposed a series of salt(y) laws and taxes on Indian salt, prohibiting locals from collecting, producing, and/or selling salt. Any non-British who produced or sold salt could be imprisoned for six months. As one can imagine, the production and distribution of this mineral in India had long been a lucrative monopoly of the British. However, this tax raised the price of national salt and made it difficult for Indians, especially poor people, to buy the salt they needed. This mineral was not only used to flavour food, but it was also something essential for human life.
It was the taxation and restriction of something so necessary for human health that felt unfair to Gandhi and many others, who, as a consequence, decided to step into protest. Driven by the philosophy of satyagraha (nonviolent resistance), Gandhi organized a salt march from Ahmedabad to the seaside village of Dandi, in the south of Gojarat. The march started on March 12th, 1930, and led to Gandhi and several other people walking 385 km. On their way, thousands of people from all over India joined the march to protest the British rule, the high salt taxes and the unfairness of not being able to produce and sell their own salt. It took them three weeks to walk from Ahmedabad to Dandi.
“Gandhi’s salt march proved to be a turning point to India’s independence movement, which culminated in 1947.”
At the end of the march, Gandhi walked to the water, picked up some grains of salt and raised them where everyone could see, an act of disobedience against the British rules. Shortly after, many followed his acts, and about 80.000 Indians, including Gandhi, were arrested by the British army due to violating the laws. However, this major nonviolent protest attracted so much media attention that the British administration invited Gandhi to travel to London and discuss a reformation in India. Gandhi’s salt march proved to be a turning point to India’s independence movement, which culminated in 1947.
At the End of the Day, It’s Not Just a Rock
From curing meat to stealing the population’s money and financing wars, salt has been and continues to be everywhere. It has changed its value throughout the years, though – from a highly valued commodity to a daily mineral that, usually in combination with pepper, makes its appearance during lunch and dinner. I mentioned many moments that saw salt as the protagonist for big chance but think about how much influence this mineral has even on our daily lives – from throwing it behind your left shoulder if spilt on the table and other spiritual associations, to simply taking a bath filled with rock salt to free your mind and relax your muscles after a long day.
Today this mineral is easily obtainable and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that not even 100 years ago salt was one of the most merchandisable commodities in human history. Perhaps it’s not worth the same now as it was back then, but it is certainly used as much, if not more. So next time you pick up the grinder, buy a pink Himalayan salt lamp or take a dip in the Dead Sea, remember that salt was the reason for the rise and fall of cities, states, kingdoms and empires.
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Kurlansky, Mark. Salt : A World History. Vintage, 2003.
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Staff, TIME. “A Brief History of Salt.” Time, Time, 15 Mar. 1982.
The opinions expressed in the articles of this magazine do not necessarily represent the views of
The New Gastronome and The University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo.