A Salty Tale

One of my earliest memory of salt was the sight of my uncle shoveling rock salt onto the frozen road outside our hotel most mornings during a particularly severe winter. My great-grandmother was a little less practical with her salt as she was fond of astrology and would throw a fistful behind her back to ward off imaginary spirits whenever something untoward happened or not. It was meant, she would tersely explain, to convey all the luck to counter all! There are, I’ve read on the vast cyberspace, some 14,000 known uses for salt. Salt’s profound impact on human civilization spans recorded history, hell, it actually precedes it. From the days of the cave men to now, this valuable mineral has seen wars & revolutions waged & fought for access to this hot commodity. Most cultures have folklore and art forms based on salt. And many cultures share traditions such as offering bread and salt to welcome visitors. Its largest use is largely invisible to the public: about 40% of salt worldwide is used as the raw material that chemical companies transform into chlorine and soda ash, the foundations of inorganic chemistry.

A little history: in the not so distant past, salt’s economic and military significance either produced trading partnership or armed conflict. A far-flung trade in ancient Greece involving exchange of salt for slaves gave rise to the expression (still fashionable these days), “not worth his salt.” Religious texts and liturgy frequently employ salt metaphorically (I’m sure you would have heard of “ye are the salt of the Earth”). By 2000 BC, people knew that adding salt to food stopped it going off. Salt was used to preserve meat, fish and vegetables, and to create delicacies such as salted olives, which added variety to their diet. On the other side of the world salt production has been important in China for well over 4,000 years as Chinese folklore recounts the discovery of salt. Nomadic caravans spreading westward were known to carry salt (in fact, researcher M.R. Bloch conjectured that civilization began along the edges of the desert because of the natural surface deposits of salt found there). Salt was so important to the Romans, that the ‘limes’ in Palestine particularly during the period of Herod surrounded the Dead Sea, and was specifically to control the salt trade mainly from Mt. Sdom, salt mountain. As you may know Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt, their salarium (from the Latin sal), today’s “salary.”

Medieval Europe was forever changed when fishermen were able to salt the cod caught off North America’s Grand Banks, preserving them for sale in Europe. Salt was involved in such historic events as the building of the Erie Canal, the French Revolution, the drive for India’s independence from British colonial rule among a host of others. In the 19th century, chemists discovered ways of using salt to make a whole range of new chemicals. As I said above, manufacturers today claim there are more than 14,000 uses for salt. This industrial demand for salt caused a growth in the industry and much more extensive deep mining and drilling of salt. Salt shortages effectively ended by the middle of the 19th century.

Ancient documents record a central role for salt in both East and West. Some 2,700 years B.C. — about 4,700 years ago — there was published in China the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, the earliest known treatise on pharmacology. A major portion of this writing was devoted to a discussion of more than 40 kinds of salt, including descriptions of two methods of extracting salt and putting it in usable form that are amazingly similar to processes used today.

Despite getting some really bad press, sodium is a vital mineral that your body needs as much as any other. What does it do? It regulates the amount of fluid that your body contains, it facilitates nerve and muscle impulses, and together with potassium, it maintains the permeability of your cells’ walls. This is a necessity if nutrients and other substances involved in cell maintenance are to be able to come and go as they’re needed. A warning note: high sodium intake can push up your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke as proper kidney function is required to eliminate salt from the body: a decrease in productivity can have dire consequences. The average body needs about 2 grams of salt a day (which breaks down into sodium and chloride in your body). Athletes need more because of the excess lost in sweating. Sadly, most Americans consume about 3 times what they really need as the bulk of sodium that is introduced to the body can be easily traced to the packaged and processed foods that we buy and consume. That is why it is important to read food product labels, and review the sodium content of each and every item that you are buying.

Take this quick quizon sodium if you want to know more.

The amount of sodium your body needs to perform the nutrient’s normal functions and keep your blood pressure on an even keel is a hot topic within the scientific community. Some scientists feel you need no more than 500 milligrams a day of sodium chloride, the form in which sodium is usually found in foods or your saltshaker. Others say that your body is naturally constituted to readily handle 4,000 to 5,000 milligrams a day without a problem. And still others point out that the amount of sodium in your body at any given time is actually determined by aldosterone, a kidney hormone, anyway. So why worry about how much you’re eating? Too much sodium in the body, and your kidneys will act to excrete the excess; too little, and they’ll make sure enough sodium is retained in your body’s fluid.

Why do we need salt?

Salt or sodium, is an electrolyte that your body needs. Electrolytes are minerals that dissolve in water and can carry electrical charges. Pure water does not conduct electricity, but water containing salt does. The three major electrolytes are sodium, potassium and chloride. Other body electrolytes are magnesium, calcium, zinc, and many others in very small amounts (called trace minerals). They are electrically charged so they can carry nutrients into and out of your cells. They also carry messages along your nerves and help control your heartbeat. Since your body is made mostly of water, these minerals can be found everywhere in your body. They are inside your cells, in the spaces between your cells, in your blood, your lymph, and everywhere else. Since they have an electrical charge they can move through you cell membranes and thus carry other nutrients with them into the cells and waste products and excess water out of the cells.

Salt is the world’s oldest food additive. Salt brings to food far more than one of the five basic taste sensations (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami); it enhances other tastes. Sweets taste sweeter. Salt masks bitter tastes, making naturally bitter foods like chocolate and broccoli become delicious (take note Bush senior!). Personally I like to grind a little salt on sliced tomatoes, add a drop of olive oil, get some crusty bread and that’s lunch. When I add a few anchovies then I’m in salty heaven. Below is a pic of a salt lamp. I have a few of them, quite handy, stick a night light inside and it goes for hours on end.

Tears, blood and sweat taste of salt. How Salt Is Made

All culinary salts are derived by evaporation. Table salt is made by driving water into a salt deposit (in a mine). This process forms a brine which is then evaporated leaving dried “cube-like crystals that look like granulated sugar”. The salt is then refined. Kosher salt is made in a similar fashion except the brine is raked continually during the evaporation process. The resulting product has a light and flaky texture. Sea salt is evaporated sea water. All salts are nutritionally the same. Sea salt has trace amounts of minerals not found in mined salt.

Besides the common table salt that is available in all shops & supermarkets there are many other types. Perhaps the two most popular would be the Sea Salt and the Kosher. I have a jar of French gray salt, some ordinary Spanish rock salt and a box of Fleur de Sel de Guérande which is de rigueur if you want to make the best potato mash and/or a mean green papaya salsa. Having said that I have toyed with most salts in my restaurant days, from the pink Hawaiian kind to the Chardonnay Smoked Salt which is smoked in old wine barrels and I must say that the humble & little coarse sea salt is as good as the next sodium craze and comes at a fraction of the cost.

G r e y s e a s a l t Grey salt (sometimes sold as “gray” salt) sel gris is organic sea salt from the coastal area of Guérande, Brittany, France. The salt is “moist” and unrefined. It remains a light grey, almost light purple color because of the clay from the salt flats where it is collected. The salt is not collected by machine but by hand using traditional Celtic methods. It is available in coarse or stoneground fine grain. It is considered by many to be the best quality salt available. This salt has really gained fame in the main stream culinary world in the last few of years. Hawaiian sea salt is produced from the Hawaiian waters. A natural mineral called “Alaea” (a red clay from Kauai rich in iron oxide) is added to the salt to add beneficial trace elements to the product. This natural additive is what gives the salt it’s distinctive pink color. It is said to have a more mellow flavor than regular sea salt.

And there is more of the salty kind like pickling salt, rock salt, popcorn salt, soda salt, seasoned salt (blended with anything from pepper to dried herbs, celery seeds etc.), and one that is now largely seen as derisive, the pretzel salt which is also used on salty bread sticks. Table salt is the most commonly used salt. It is a fine-grained and looks the same in appearance as fine grained sea salt. Iodized salt is just table salt with Iodine added. And now I’ll show you how to bake a whole fish into a crust of salt flavored with rosemary. It’s easily made, costs little and can be used for the whole fish (preferable), cutlets or filleted. Make sure the fish is well cleaned and firm (and comes from the ocean, not a fish farm – that’s another diary), with or without the head or tail. Personally I’d bake the whole fish, the cats in your house will thank you for it! All you need for an average fish, say a sea-bream or a (red) snapper weighing roughly 3 to 4 pounds is the following: 1 kilogram (or 2 pounds) of rock salt (coarse sea-salt), 1 kilo of plain flour (the cheapest kind), 4 egg whites, 4 or 5 sprigs of fresh rosemary (dried ok) and a pint of cold water. I’ve seen people making their crust brushing it with egg yolks as well but I’d go for the simplistic method.

To make the crust, simply combine the salt and flour in a large bowl and stir well. Add the egg whites (slightly beaten), the rosemary leaves and enough of the water to make a soft dough. Cover the dough and leave to rest for a few minutes. Then knead it to make a smooth ball. Roll out on a lightly flour-dusted surface to around 1/4 inch thick. Place the fish bang on the middle and fold, sealing the fish completely. Move it to a buttered baking dish. Preheat the oven to 180c and bake your fish for 30 minutes. Remove from the dish carefully, break open the crust and retrieve your fish. Serve with boiled new potatoes and a tomato salad sprinkled with your favorite toasted seeds (mine’s pumpkin). The aroma coming out of the fish should knock you out. The same thing can be done to a free range chicken or a leg of lamb. I’ve tried to bake vegetables in the same salt crust but failed miserably.

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