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salt-comm-art - 9/4/04

"Salt of the Earth" by Lord Xaviar.

NOTE: See also the files: commerce-msg, salt-msg, measures-msg, stockfish-msg, spices-msg, herbs-msg.

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                               Thank you,
                                    Mark S. Harris
                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous
                                         stefan at florilegium.org
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                     THE SALT OF THE EARTH.
                    By Da`ved Man of Letters
                   Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.

     The value of salt as a commodity has been known throughout history.  It is very concentrated; being the source of the essential minerals sodium and chlorine.  Salt is a biological necessity, proven by the evolutionary development of a specific set of taste buds to detect and enjoy it.  When a human being perspires, he loses some of his natural body salts and these have to replaced from the food he eats (Tann. 179).  The want of salt far exceeds the need the body has for its ingestion.  It is estimated that the average person consumes more than twenty-five times the necessary amount of salt.  It is likely that this craving for salt brought about its' organized production.

     Salt-winning is the term for the deliberate production of salt from seawater.  Salt collection from naturally occurring sources was undoubtedly practiced for thousands of years before this process was discovered.  Early in the Neolithic era, salt was used in bleaching, cleaning, and dyeing of fabric.  It was also used in the degreasing, dehairing, and softening of leather, before during and after the invention of fabric.  The early Romans used salt as money, (salarium = salt money or salt rations) though this practice was short lived.  The Latin Words for "well-being" salus, and for "health," salubritas, both derive from the Latin sal, meaning "salt" (Schi. p.3).

     Salt has been documented for medical, sacred, and culinary purposes, by many different sources.  Salts worth as a medicine is praised by Claudius Galen (Galen of Pergamom A.D.E. 129-199), who recommended that one consume moderate amounts of salt food to encourage a flagging appetite.  Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus A.D.E. 23-79, Aug.24) is noted as saying that the gods were especially fond of salt, hence their devotees presented it as an offering.  This faded with time and a new fad arose of using perfumes.  This was a sign of the intrusion of eastern customs and religions into the culture of the Greco-Roman world. Plutarch (Plutarchos A.D.E. 146-119) wrote: "First there is salt without which practically nothing is eatable."  He also calls it a requisite to good dining.  Ancient Greek coastal cities traded salt for slaves with their inland city-states.  The need for salt inland grew as the sphere of Roman influence increased.

     In the fifth century Cassiodorus (a Goth administrator) stated "It may be that some seek not gold, but there lives not a man that does not need salt." (Molm. 14-17).  Salt became an international trade item as early as the Sixth century. The first salt monopoly is connected to the conquests of King Ancus Marcius (641-616 B.C.E.).  He is recorded as establishing saltworks at Ostia on both sides of the Tiber river.  The Roman government ceased control of these operations in 506 B.C.E. and banned all private salt production.  Medieval Europe inherited the ideology of salt monopolies and taxes from the Romans.  Salt was called the chief article of Venetian commerce and was produced in Murano and Chioggia.  The Venetians had managed to make salt a major source of state revenue by controlling the trade.

     Written evidence of salt production, trade and taxation during the Middle Ages is found in ecclesiastical records.  This is congruent with most other aspects of Medieval history as the Church seems to have had influence everywhere.  Salt making is historically one of the first monastic industries.  Several Bishops of Salzburg became veritable entrepreneurs from the development of the salt trade and taxation.

     In the early 12th century Venice became more a trader then producer and asserted control over the salt trade. Venice held the control of salt in the Mediterranean until the emergence of Genoa as an important trading city.  Medieval Arabic cookery, with its leaning toward the sweet, had an effect upon the saltiness of European cuisine.  This was one of many possible reasons that contributed to the unsalting of Europe during the early middle ages.  When and why the waning of the use of salt occurred is different for various reasons.  Cost, adherence to the whims of the crown, different cultures and geographical locations, all may have played a part.

     The High Middle Ages saw an elimination of the use of garum and liquamen (salty fish sauce) from most of Europe.  While the Arabic world never totally eliminated its use.  The French reinvented garum using a fish called garon and was in commercial manufacture in the south of France.  This might be a direct result of the heavy taxation on salt by the French government. Charles of Anjou (1225-1285) instituted a salt tax in Provence, to finance his conquest of the Kingdom of Naples (Mult. p 13). This begins to show how important salt was to the average person.

     Renaissance scholars concluded that the ancients treated salt as a sacred substance, a medicine and as a condiment. The increase in the use of salt in the Renaissance was not due to its sacred quality or its medicinal value.  It was a gluttonous society that promoted salt over all other condiments as an appetite stimulant.

     The gourmets of the Renaissance imitated the Ancients by increasing its repertoire of salt-acid delicacies.  Renaissance diners baited their appetites with salt fish, salt meat, and salt vegetables (Rabe. 83,575-7, bks I, IV).  Francois Rabelais (Alcofribas Nasier 1494- 1553, Apr. 9) wrote that Gargantua constructed a salad with oil, vinegar, and salt as an appetizer. This appears to be the first reference to salad dressings.  He called fast days "jours maigres entrelardex" or "larded lean days," for the taking of salt-acid delicacies on a fast day was a hypocrisy.  Renaissance diners were so fond of gorging on salt fish and salted fish eggs that physicians condemned this passion (Platina p 265).  This had little effect on the diets of the wealthy.

     The fourteenth century saw a general increase in northern European trade.  Salted Herring had just recently been 'invented' by a Dutchman, Willem Benckels and was in big demand.  This new commodity switched the source of salt from the Mediterranean to more local sources in the North Sea.  The sources were the coast of England and the peat bogs of Holland.  Toward the end of the fourteenth century, the Dutch depleted the peat and the English were depleting the needed fire wood for salt production.  The English were also concentrating their economic growth on the textile industry.  This shifted the production of salt once again.  This time it was to bay salt a darker (dirtier) alternative mainly from France and Spain.  By the end of the Middle Ages bay salt was the principal source of supply for northern Europe.

     By the mid-sixteenth century, Jean Baptiste Bruyerin wrote that salt fish was as popular in his day as it was in ancient times.  The types having been altered with time.  There being a greater variety available now, for the gourmet to enjoy.  In particular Bruyerin points out that the ancient did not have; "...herring, sturgeon eggs [caviar], botargo [other fish eggs] and other items brought from constantinople to Italy."  The spread of salt fish spread from Italy to France and was well received.  Guido Panciroli claimed that caviar and botargo were being used in place of garum.  It is odd though that Messisbugo and Scappi, two famous cooks of the day, do not use this substitution in their cookbooks.  The late sixteenth century saw the spread of salt fish preparations into England.  Caviar was being imported into Europe by the fourteenth century (Balducci, 103)

     Salted meat became the standard rather than the exception. Bruyerin states that meat that has not been sprinkled with salt and is recently slaughtered will cause stomach upset and slow digestion.  He goes on to state that beef is better with moderate salting.  Louis Nonnius disagreed; by the next century he could report that much more fresh beef was eaten than fresh pork, which was not eaten by 'elegant people'." (Pete, 140)

     Salted vegetables were enjoyed by both the powerful and commoner alike by the late sixteenth century.  The modern cornichons of France are a left over of this time period. Cornichons are tiny cucumbers preserved in a salt and vinegar brine.  Olives became very popular and became a much larger import than in ancient times.  Salted capers became a table snack for stimulating the appetite.  Nonnius wrote that artichokes "ought to be eaten with oil, garum, and coriander," but "some eat artichokes with salt only." (Nonnius p 408)  He further wrote of capers and olives being used "...to incite much drinking."

     It seems as though salt has lost some of its prominence. Going from gift to the gods to seasoning that even a peasant would not be with out.  But this has not diminished its use for as of 1973 World salt production was 165 billion kilograms; with an average household consumption of 7.5 kilograms per year.  This breaks down to between 6 and 15 grams a day.  This is almost 25 times the sodium needed along with more than enough chlorine, which is an important constituent of our gastric juice (and fluid regulator).  With these figures, it is safe to say that salt is still the most widely used flavoring agent in the world.

                          Works Cited

     Balducci Pegolotti, Francesco. La Pratica della mercatura.
     Ed. Allan Evans. Cambridge: Medieval Academy of America.
     1936.

     Bruyerin, Jean Baptiste. De re cibaria... [Lyon}. 1560.

     Le Bret, J. F., Vorlesungen uber die statistik Stuttgart.
     1783.

     Mcgee, Harold; On Food and Cooking, Macmillian Pub Co. NY.
     1984.

     Messisbugo, Cristoforo di. Banchetti; Composizioni di
     vivande e apparecchio generale. 1549. Ed F. Bandini. Venice:
     Pozza, 1960.

     Molmenti, P.G., Venice, Its Growth to the Fall of the
     Republic, Vol II. 1906-8/

     Multhauf, Robert P.,  Neptune's Gift; a history of common
     salt, The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. Baltimore. 1978

     Nonnius, Louis. Diaeteticon, sive, de re cibaria. Antwerp.
     1645.

     Panciroli, Guido. History of Many Memorable Things Lost,
     Which Were in Use among the Ancients; and an Account of Many
     Things Found Now in Use among the Moderns... London:
     Nicholson. 1715.

     Platina, Bartolomeo, De honesta voluptate. [Venice, 1475]
     St. Louis; Mallinkrodt, 1967. Published in French as De
     l'honneste volupte'. Paris: Sergent, 1539.

     Pliny, Natural History. Trans. H. Rackham and W.H.S. Jones.
     10 vols. London: Heinemann, 1938-63.

     Plutarch, Moralia. Trans. R. C. Babbitt, W. C. Holmbold, and
     H. N. Fowler. 15 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge:
     Harvard University Press, 1927.

     Peterson, T. Sarah, Acquired Taste, The French Origins of
     Modern Cooking, Cornell Univ. Press. London 1994.

     Rabelais, Francois. The Histories of Gargantua and
     Pantagruel. Trans. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
     1955.

     Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, Tastes of Paradise; A Social History
     of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, Tran. David
     Jacobson, Pantheon Books. 1992.

     Scappi, Bartolomeo. Opera. Venice; Tramezzino, 1570. Vecchi,
     1610.

     Strayer, Joseph R; Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Vols
     1,3,5,10,13. Charles Scribners sons, NY. 1982.

     Sonnenfed, Peter and J.-P. perthuisot, Brines and
     Evaporites; American Geophysical Union. Washing D.C. 1989.

     Tyler-Herbst, Sharon. Food Lover's Companion. Barrons
     Educational Series Inc. NY. 1990.

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Copyright 1996 by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric, <medieval_man_inc at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and is notified by email.

If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.

<the end>



Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org