Last summer, Nick and I visited one of my favourite towns on the west coast of Sicily. Trapani has the smallest international airport to be found on the island but it is well worth the Ryan Air flight. It is small enough that there is quite literally no customs or immigration when you land. You simply pick up your suitcases and walk out of the airport.
Another thing about Trapani that I love is the salt flats. Some of the best sea salt in the world comes from the fields outside of Trapani. You might ask why salt would be so interesting to me, but then, in my other life, I teach history and in history, salt has had the king’s role.
Salt and the development of human communities have gone hand in hand. Salt exists in places where sea water has evaporated forming outcroppings of salt (salt licks), shallow caverns that need to be mined or salt beds along the sea. Animals would find their way to the natural salt licks creating paths which later turned to roads and communities plopped themselves down along the way.
As hunters, humans had enough salt in their diet from the meat they consumed, but once gathering became the way we subsisted, salt became necessary for life. Most available salt lay underground, making it difficult to access. Thus, as any first year economics student could tell you, the law of supply and demand kicked into full gear and, because of scarcity, salt quite literally became worth its weight in gold.
Trade in salt boomed. Trade routes developed crisscrossing northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and going as far east as China, becoming intrinsically intertwined with the spice trade. In fact, Venice’s importance and wealth was built by carrying salt to Constantinople and trading it for Eastern spices. Salt became currency in many places in Africa. Abyssinia used slabs of rock salt about 10” long and 2” thick called “amôlés”. Greeks and Romans bought slaves with salt and Roman soldiers’ pay consisted partly of salt and was called solarium argentum from which the present day word “salary” comes.
Salt had the power to strengthen or help dissolve governments. Taxes collected on salt could fill a king’s coffers making him and his country wealthy. Conversely, these taxes could be the downfall of a king or government. In France, the taxes on salt were so outrageously high that it helped start the French Revolution and led to the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In India, Mahatma Gandhi took his followers to the sea to make their own salt, protesting the high salt taxes imposed by the British government, leading the Indian people one step closer to emancipation.
Over time, salt has become the centre in many expressions and superstitions. Salt can be used as an antiseptic, which led to the belief that salt could purify us of bad luck or evil spirits. In Japan, even today, sumo wrestlers toss salt into the ring before beginning to wrestle as a way of purifying their space. Spilling salt is considered unlucky and must be followed by tossing a little salt over the left shoulder, which was considered ‘sinister’ and had to be purified. Leonardo da Vinci painted an overturned saltcellar in front of Judas in The Last Supper indicating the evil he was about to cause. Salt is thought to bring prosperity, which is why many people make a gift of salt to newlyweds, those who have purchased a new house and when visiting people on New Years. Salt could protect against witchcraft, curses and the ‘evil eye’ or mal’occhio in Italian.
English is full of expressions using salt as a metaphor or simply referring to past human experience with salt. ‘Go back to the salt mines’ referred to the back-breaking work that slaves did bringing salt to the surface from the underground salt mines. You can still frequently hear things like ‘It went through him like a dose of salts’ referring to past medicinal uses of salt or ‘She is worth her salt’ harking back to the days in which salt was used as currency. Italians say ‘Avere sale in zucca’ or ‘you have salt on your pumpkin’ meaning to be very clever. To an Italian, you’re clever if you know to sprinkle salt on pumpkin and other winter squashes to balance its natural sweetness.
I didn’t intend to write such a long post about salt, but the more I read, the more interesting tidbits I found. Part two of this post will have more about the sea salt from Trapani.
I just want to mention some of the sites in which I found my information. A Google search of ‘salt’ gives you 142 million hits, but the two I found most useful were:
- Time Magazine’s “A Brief History of Salt”
- Italians Say It Best: 10 Brilliant Food-Centric Expressions by Francine Segan