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Salt - An Amazing History
an amazing history
A Religious Symbol
Salt’s symbolic importance has been evident in many cultures
and religions. A symbol of purity, Greek worshippers
consecrated salt in their rituals. Jewish Temple offerings
included salt and on the Sabbath, Jews dip their bread in salt as
a remembrance of those sacrifices. There are more than 30
references to salt in the Bible. Jesus called his disciples ‘the
Salt of the Earth.’ In Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting, ‘The
Last Supper,’ Judas has just spilled the salt - an omen of evil
and bad luck. To this day, the tradition endures that someone
who spills salt should throw.
Salt Taxation
Salt has been taxed by governments around the world
for thousands of years.
In medieval Burgundy in France, salt was taxed at more
than 100% as it came from the salt-works. Extended to
the whole of France when Burgundy was absorbed, the
notorious salt tax ‘la gabelle’ became necessary to the
government and Cardinal Richelieu said that it was as
vital to France as American silver was to Spain. The
repeal of the salt tax was a major goal of the
revolutionaries of 1789, but Napoléon restored it as soon
as he became Emperor, to pay for his foreign wars and it
thereafter continued until 1825.
A Symbol of Friendship
The value of salt in the middle ages was
highly prized and became a symbol of
friendship and trust. Phrases such as ‘salt
of the earth’ reflect its importance and often
it was used as an indication of status.
If you sat above the salt cellar, closer to the
head of the table you were ‘of rank’; below it
you were of less importance and denied its use.
A Preservative
During the middle ages food storage was vital to society.
Whether it was hunted, gathered or grown and harvested,
food was rarely available when it was needed especially
through the winter months so effective storage was very
Today, with refrigeration and effective transportation, the
problem seems rather trivial but most medieval towns and
villages were close to self-sufficient and a bad harvest could
be a disaster. Salt was the only way of preserving perishable
foods and salted bacon was the chief meat at the peasants’
table for many generations.
Roman Times
Around 2500 years ago, campaigning Roman soldiers
were paid salt money or ‘salarium argentum’ from which
the English word ‘salary’ was derived. The need for salt
made it a valuable commodity and attempts at monopoly
by individuals, corporations, cities, and nations made it
the subject of conflict and war. The city of Rome may
have begun as a salt-trading centre that later became
the capital of the civilised world.
Salt was a significant contributor to the Roman economy
and around 506 BC salt traders of the Roman port of
Ostia raised prices so high that the state was forced to
take the industry over.
The Trade in Salt
In ancient times, salt (or the lack of it) could drastically
affect the health of entire populations. Trade in salt
was very important, and salt was valuable enough to
be used as currency in some areas.
The trade in salt is older than taxation. Bars of salt
were carried from the coast of Africa to inland cities of
the Middle East where precious goods such as jewels
and silks were traded for it by Arab merchants. Salt
was such a valuable commodity in some places that it
was traded ounce for ounce for gold.
Early Civilisations
The Egyptians and other early civilisations are pictured in
drawings using salt as a preservative. Ducks were killed
and packed into jars of salt to prolong their edible life in
hot climates.
Egyptians also used a salt mixture called natron in the
mummification of their dead. Natron was a natural
substance found in abundance along the Nile river and
comprised of four salts, sodium carbonate, sodium
bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate. This
was used as a drying agent drawing moisture out of the
body and eliminating the source of decay.
Ancient times
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.
Writings on salt also existed on clay tablets of Ancient
Babylon and on Egyptian papyri. Even without written
evidence we can be sure salt was a feature of
everyday life in all ancient communities going back
to prehistoric times.

Salt - An amazing history

Salt is a remarkable thing. An essential element in the diet of not only humans but of animals, and even of many plants, it is one of the most effective and most widely used of all food preservatives. Its industrial, medical and other uses are almost without number (ie. around 14,000). In fact, salt has been such an important element of life that it has been the subject of many stories and is frequently referenced in fairy tales. Some cultures ascribe magical powers to salt.
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.
Saltmaking encompasses much of the history of Europe since Roman times. Medieval European records document saltmaking technologies and concessions. You can sound particularly impressive at dinner parties by throwing on one of these salty historical facts:

  • Venice rose to economic greatness through its salt monopoly
  • Halle is Germany's "Salt City" and an "old salt route" connected German salt mines to shipping ports on the Baltic.
  • Saltmaking was important in the Balkans where Tuzla, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is actually named "tuz," the Turkish word for salt. Your guests may have nodded off by this point.
  • Salzburg, Austria, has made its four salt mines major tourist attractions. Do go.
  • The successful Dutch blockade of the Iberian saltworks led directly to Spanish bankruptcy and the undoing of Philip II.   
  • France has always been a salt producer and has a "salt road" of its own, along the Mediterranean coast.

At which point, it’s probably time to bring this potted history of all things salt to a close. There’s much, much more to tell, so do let us know if you’d like some more flakes from the salt-encrusted archives.

Saxon Salt Making

Saxon salt making

According to legend
What is Salt
Where does salt come from?
What is salt used for?
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