Today you take for granted that salt is cheap and plentiful, but this is only a recent phenomenon. In the past, salt was like petroleum oil in its importance to humanity. This book dived into that history.
Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.
Where people ate a diet consisting largely of grains and vegetables, supplemented by the meat of slaughtered domestic farm animals, procuring salt became a necessity of life, giving it great symbolic importance and economic value. Salt became one of the first international commodities of trade; its production was one of the first industries and, inevitably, the first state monopoly.
Ancient empires had a surprisingly elaborate system of mining and procuring salt that was not only essential to commerce, but also to feed a growing human population, which required a higher per capital salt amount than today because food had to be preserved in it. Many of history’s wars were funded by revenue gained from salt taxes.
There are mountains in which the salt goes down very deep, particularly at Wieliczka and Bochnia. Here on the fifth of January, 1528, I climbed down fifty ladders in order to see for myself and there in the depths observed workers, naked because of the heat, using iron tools to dig out a most valuable hoard of salt from these inexhaustible mines, as if it had been gold and silver.— Olaus Magnus, A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555
American slaves were contracted out to work in salt mines:
The saltworks themselves were also dangerous, especially for slaves who were not trained in this industry. Boilers exploded, and sometimes workers would slip into near-boiling pots of brine. The owners sometimes sued the salt makers to be compensated for the loss or damage of their human property.
The book shared numerous ancient recipes (perhaps too numerous) that showed the reader how our ancestors salted meats and fish before cooking.
After having washed seven or eight anchovies, let them soak several minutes in water to desalinate; having separated the fillets from their bones place them in a dish with several spoonfuls of olive oil , a pinch of pepper, two or three garlic cloves chopped fine, you could also add a splash of vinegar. Cut a slice about one inch off the top of a pain de ménage [or pain ordinaire—a long, round, typical French bread]. This is the best choice of bread because it does not easily crumble.
The most glaring flaw is that the author did not describe the effect of modern refrigeration on the salt industry. I fail to understand how a history book on salt could omit this.
Salt consumption is declining in most of the world. The average twentieth-century European consumed half as much salt as the average nineteenth-century European.
Overall it was an enjoyable and entertaining book, especially considering that it’s about something as common as salt, but at times it did feel like a patchwork of random stories with too much filler in terms of recipes. Nonetheless, men interested in history and food will enjoy it.
Read More: “Salt: A World History” on Amazon