Salt is one of the oldest commodities on earth and one of the things that made empires in the ancient world. Since we visit Studio City in Los Angeles quite often, we visit the farmers market on Sunday just as often. It was there that we became acquainted with the range of finishing salts from Hepp’s Salt who usually have a booth there. Apparently they started in 2011, in Venice, California with salt bars at local farmers’ markets throughout LA. I have had interesting finishing salts before, like black salt from Hawaii but these salts from Hepp’s were really nice, especially on popcorn. We started with the black and white Truffle salts, which have a buttery/earthy/truffle flavor and have since moved on to Sirache, Habinero and Himalaya salts. We have started using it on other foods apart from popcorn and I thought it would warrant a post.
A Short History of Salt
The word salt comes from the Latin term “sal”, which comes from the word sol. Our blood is a “sole” consisting of a salty solution quite similar to the oceans, fluid consisting of water, minerals and salt. Salt was in use long before recorded history. In fact, animals instinctively forged trails to sources of salt to satisfy their needs. Early human hunters consumed salt by eating animal meat. As their diets changed to include vegetables and cereals, they discovered that salt, probably from sea water gave vegetables the same salty flavor as their meat. Although salt intake is necessary for good health, far larger quantities were used to preserve meat, cheese and fish in an age without refrigeration, not to mention the need for salt licks for domesticated cows, goats and assorted livestock.
Chinese folklore credits the mythological “phoenix” or Fenghuang with the discovery of salt. Evidence of salt collection in China goes back over 8000 years. The Fenghuang (also August Rooster) has very positive connotations as a symbol of high virtue and grace, much like salt. About 4,700 years ago the Chinese Png-tzao-kan-mu, one of the earliest known writings, recorded more than 40 types of salt. It described two methods of extracting and processing salt, similar to methods still in use today. In 2200 BCE, the Chinese Emperor Hsia Yu levied one of the first known taxes by taxing salt. He was to start a tradition that would last thousands of years. Shi Huangdi, First Emperor (259-210 BCE) of a Unified China in the Qin dynasty, actually levied a salt tax to build the Great Wall of China.
British monarchs imposed salt taxes, and French kings developed a salt monopoly, giving exclusive rights to produce it to a favoured few. In the late 1700’s, when hogs and cattle began dying in Britain for lack of salt due to the high taxes, angry mobs rioted until Parliament finally abolished the tax. Many feel the monopoly practiced by the French royalty directly contributed to the French Revolution. The new Assembly ended the salt tax in France 1790, making salt affordable. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi undertook his 200-mile march to the sea in protest of Britain’s salt tax and the prohibition against gathering sea salt.
In 1500 BCE, Egyptians used salt as a means of commerce, fashioning salt bars 8 inches long, 4 inches wide and more than 2 inches thick. In ancient Egypt, slaves were traded for salt, hence the expression “not worth his salt.” Ancient Egyptians used a salt mixture called Natron, found in dry lake beds, in the mummification process. Blended with oil, it was an early form of soap. It softens water while removing oil and grease. Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of four salts: sodium carbonate decahydrate (a kind of soda ash), sodium bicarbonate (also called baking soda) along with small quantities of sodium chloride and sodium sulfate.
Salt served as money at various times and places, and the quest for salt has been the cause of bitter warfare. Offering bread and salt to visitors is, in many cultures, a traditional sign of hospitality. Until relatively recently, salt bars were the standard currency of Ethiopia and cakes of salt, stamped to show their value, could be used as money in countries as far apart as Tibet and Borneo. The circulation of the salt bar, or amok, used in exchange, was governed by the basic logic of supply and demand. You could buy a wife for two amok and a horse for five bars of salt. Now the salt fetches approximately $9 per camel load.
Rome also valued salt over 2,000 years ago, maintaining a standing army of soldiers guarding the salt-laden wagon that traversed the 150 mile Via Salaria (Salt Road) connecting the salt-producing seacoast town of Ostia to Rome. The Via Salaria owes its name to the Latin word for “salt”, since it was the route by which the Sabines came to fetch salt from the marshes at the mouth of the Tiber, one of many ancient salt roads in Europe. The Roman soldiers received salt as part of their payment. Called “salarium,” the word salary is derived from this money. Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, which is why the Roman word for these salt crystals (sal) is a first cousin to Salus, the goddess of health.
Types of Salt
There are two basic types of salt production, from salt mines or by the evaporation of seawater (sea salt) or mineral-rich spring water in shallow pools. Sadly, most table salt is refined into a mostly pure sodium chloride, removing trace minerals. Refined salt’s major industrial products are caustic soda and chlorine, and it is used in many industrial processes and in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride, plastics, paper pulp and many other products requiring a pure source of salt. Iodine and sometimes fluoride and iron are added to “fortified” salt. I say sadly, because the raw salt is often (not always) perfectly safe to eat and contains many minerals that are not only healthy but add different flavors and sometimes even color to the salt.
Unrefined and/or specialty salts are often called finishing salts, added during plating and not used for actual cooking. There is some debate about this but the subtle flavors of the minerals are probably lost when mixed in with the food during cooking and even good sea salt does not have enough iodine. I personally use a coarse grain kosher refined salt for cooking, as do most chefs. The biggest reason why chefs love to use kosher salt is that it is much easier to pick up between your fingers and thus gives you tighter control over your seasoning. Distributing seasoning evenly is also easier with kosher salt. Because kosher salt comes in flakes, it occupies about twice the volume of more compact table salt. Thus one teaspoon of kosher salt is equivalent to 1/2 teaspoon of table salt.
One of the most famous unrefined salts is Fleur de Sel hand processed sea salt. Fleur de sel, flor de sal (in Portuguese), or flor de sal (in Spanish and Catalan) is a hand-harvested sea salt collected by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans. Traditional French fleur de sel is collected off the coast of Brittany, most notably in the town of Guérande (called Fleur de Sel de Guérande), but also in Noirmoutier, Île de Ré and Camargue. Since ancient times, sea salt has been harvested off the rocks of southern Greece. The Mayans cultivated sea salt 1,500 years ago for its distribution throughout Mesoamerican with trade routes extending to Guatemala, Central America and the Caribbean.
Extreme heat and other conditions of Lake Assal in Africa create “Salt Pearls” which form their smooth, round shape naturally as they tumble on the water’s edge in a variety of different sizes. Salt Pearls range in size from tiny beads to golf ball salt spheres. The flavor is pure and gentle, not harsh or bitter. This 100% natural salt is 98.5%-99.5% pure Sodium Chloride with a variety of beneficial trace minerals. The salt comes from Lac Assal (Salt Lake), the lowest point in Africa and, at 155 meters below sea level, the third lowest depression on earth. It is the second most salinated lake in the world, after Don Juan Pond in Antarctica and more saline than the Dead Sea. Due to their unique shape Salt Pearls have been collected and traded for millennia to nearby Ethiopia.
The term Hawaiian sea salt describes both a style of salt and the land where the salt is made. Traditionally Hawaiian sea salt is red, though today white and black varieties can also be found. Hawaiian red salts are made by mixing white sea salt with alaea clay, a native Hawaiian volcanic clay that is rich in iron, and historically honored for its beauty, health benefits, and spiritual properties. The black salts of Hawaii are often called “volcanic” salts. The name is nice for its romantic appeal rather than its factual accuracy. In truth, black Hawaiian salts are made by combining activated charcoal to sea salt to achieve their arresting color and detoxifying properties.
Himalayan salt is Pakistan’s best known rock salt. It is used for cooking, as a bath salt, as brine and as a raw material for many industries. The Khewa mine, where it quarried, is also a popular tourist attraction. Salt from the Khewra mine is also used to make decorative items like vases, shot glasses, serving plates and slabs for cooking which have become very popular for cooking fish recently. The rock salt at Khewra was discovered when Alexander the Great crossed the region during his Indian campaign. The mine was discovered, however, not by Alexander, nor by his allies, but by his army’s horses, when they were found licking the stones.
There are many examples of salt that is infused with flavor/color and of course mixtures of salt with useful opposing herbs and flavors. Examples include celery salt, garlic salt, lemon salt, lavender salt and of course my popcorn salt, white and black truffle salt. I like this particular salt for popcorn because it comes in a fine grain and adds both a salty taste and a deep buttery taste, all without the calories. It is great on vegetables as well. There are also smoked salts that add a smoky flavor, great on meat. Finally I am also fond of Sirache salt and Habenero salt for a little heat with your salt.
This got a little longer than I planned but I can promise you there is much, much more to say on this subject. The history of salt is intimately intertwined with the history of civilization. The ancient salt roads predated the silk and spice roads by a large margin. Think of this as a long introduction, I will probably include some salt based recipes in the future. As always, please leave a comment.
Hepp’s Salt: http://heppssalt.com/
Djiboutian White Gold: http://www.ethnotraveler.com/2013/07/djiboutis-white-gold/
Natural Salt Healing: http://naturalsalthealing.com/index.php/history-of-salt/
Salt Sense: http://www.saltsense.co.uk/
Rome Art Lover: http://www.romeartlover.it/Vasi83.htm
Kosher vs Table Salt: http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/03/ask-the-food-lab-do-i-need-to-use-kosher-salt.html
The Meadow: http://themeadow.com