To say the history of salt is essentially the history of the world is not an overstatement. Some call salt a "primordial condiment," and rightfully so. It has been part of this earth for as long as there has been water and rock to create it. Salt has a history billions of years in the making that only grows richer as generations of humans continue to learn about and appreciate its endless merits.
Our modern-day uses of salt are a culmination of centuries-worth of cultures who coveted salt as a precious, rare, and indispensible commodity. To have salt readily available is a very recent luxury—a luxury by which Egyptian pharaohs and European kings would have been astonished.
It was only a matter of time before the demand for salt and all its wonders became so great that the harvesting of it evolved in a way that would bring salt to the masses and not just to the elite. Of course, this did not happen over night. War, religion, trade—all had a hand in shaping the history of salt and bringing it to our dinner table.
To taste salt is to truly taste our history as humans on this earth. One of the most beautiful aspects of salt is its intrinsic timelessness—it is not a short-lived trend or a fading star. Salt is so much a part of who we were, who we are, and who we will be that we at Beyond the Shaker cannot help but celebrate its countless virtues and hold it in the highest regard—and we know that you will, too.
The Chinese have a well-documented history, one that details what could have been the first wars over salt.
Huangdi—a Chinese ruler who crosses the fine line between myth and man—is purported to have resided over these beginning wars. Lake Yuncheng, in the northern province of Shanxi, is home to prehistoric China's earliest salt works and the location of countless wars over power of the lake. Chinese historians have found that as early as 6000 BC (and possibly even earlier than that), people harvested salt from the surface of the lake after the water evaporated during the sunny summer seasons.
China seemed to be ahead of the rest of the world when it came to harvesting and using salt, and therefore was also ahead of the rest of the world when it came to the tax and trade of salt. It wasn't until 800 B.C. that the production and trade of salt was recorded in writing, but it detailed techniques and processes that were used nearly a thousand years prior. The record states that clay containers were filled with water from the ocean and then boiled until only the salt remained. This process spread through Europe about a thousand years later, thanks to the Roman Empire.
And with the popularity and usage of iron came a new technique in 450 B.C. made popular by a man named Yi Dun—boiling brine (salt water) in iron pans until all that remained was the highly sought-after salt. This process became the leading way to produce salt for nearly 2,000 years—and was still in practice in the 19th century when salt production hastened and multiplied as a result of industrialization.
Salt, for thousands of years, had been a major lifeline to the Chinese economy in particular, with the ingrained understanding that whoever controlled the salt—be it in trade, tax, or production—controlled just about everything else. Power-hungry dynasties, egregious monopolies, angry, over-taxed peasants—history seemed to repeat itself century after century as China's major cash crop continued to hold a high rank.
Salt's importance to China was not solely a result of being a tantalizing food enhancer and preserver. Salt also played a very integral role in the discovery of gunpowder.
Saltpetre—or sodium nitrate—is said to have been discovered by the Chinese in the first century AD and was used for medicinal purposes. The medicinal applications, however, were short-lived when another use was discovered: saltpetre is an essential oxidizing component of black powder—or gunpowder. The Chinese—historically ahead of the game with salt—owe the discovery of gun powder to a group of 9th century Taoist monk-alchemists who, rather ironically, were in search of an elixir of immortality. Instead, the discovery led to the development of the world's first firearms to be used in warfare.
Salt, for much of human history, has been a highly-valued commodity that served many purposes, but perhaps the most useful and powerful purpose is preservation. Salt has an uncanny ability to preserve just about anything—be it a vegetable or even a human cadaver!
We all remember learning in grade school about ancient Egypt's mummies and the opulent tombs constructed for the pharaohs and other wealthy elite. But even before the time of ancient Egypt's exalted era of pharaohs, the salt in the dry desserts helped to preserve corpses found in burial sites from 5000 years ago.
The realization of salt's preserving properties gave way to the mummification process—along with salt's rise to importance. The Egyptians discovered a type of salt in a dry riverbed—an area they called Natrun—that they used in the mummification process. They named the salt netjry or, as we know it, natron—and referred to it as "the divine salt." Natron was used in mummification processes, and though it wasn't entirely composed of sodium chloride, some bodies from ancient Egypt do appear to be preserved with salt alone—likely due to not being able to afford the pricier natron.
For the ancient Egyptians, the dead body was a vessel to the afterlife, and it needed to be well-preserved in order to live its non-earthly life. Not only that, they needed to be well-equipped for their life after death. Tombs included two parts: one part for the corpse, and one part for the offerings. The elaborateness of tombs, of course, depended on the depth of the deceased proverbial pockets: the more money and power you had, the more space and offerings you had.
Food and drink comprised a majority of the offerings, including jars of salt and salted fish, meat, vegetables, and fruits. The journey to the afterlife was long, of course, and so both the body and the food needed to endure. Salt made this possible, and the Egyptians understood its inherent value because of it.
Egyptians may have been the first civilization to preserve fish and meat with salt. Salt, as we know, draws out moisture which can cause the growth of bacteria and salt also helps to kill bacteria—therefore preventing food from going bad. And since most of our human history did not include the benefit of modern refrigeration, food that could be preserved was highly valuable.
The Egyptians cured and preserved just about everything they could get their hands on to make sure they never had to go without food. Recognizing the worth of preserving food, Egyptians turned to trade. The Egyptians did not export much salt by itself, though—it was bulky and difficult to transport—but rather food that was salted, which transported easily without spoiling and had a value added per pound.
Ancient Egypt's trade in salted fare started a 4000 year-long history of trade and export involving salt and food. No small feat, but one that started with the simple need for unspoiled food.
We know that the French have always taken great pride and interest in salt, and gabelle—the infamously unfair tax on salt—left a bitter taste in the mouths of the French for centuries.
The gabelle, at one point, was a tax on all types of commodities, but slowly managed to only be applied to salt, thanks to King Philip IV, who enforced it as a "temporary" measure in the late 13th century. Keeping the tax temporary just wasn't in the cards, since Charles V made it a permanent tax during his enthronement in the 14th century.
Taxes, of course, are inevitable, and oftentimes we just need to grin and bear it. The gabelle, however, was a little different—in fact, it was flat-out unscrupulous. The government required each citizen over the age of eight years to purchase a minimum of salt on a weekly basis at a fixed price, more or less forcing its citizens to pay the tax while those in power watched all the money roll right in.
And what started off as a uniform tax all too easily turned into a tax that varied from person to person based upon where they lived and, essentially, from where they were receiving their salt. The country was broken out into six different provinces called pays, where each distinct province had its own price to pay for tax on the salt per minot (which is about 50 kilograms of salt).
Each province had a Greniers à sel—a salt granary—where all salt produced from that region needed to taken in order to be bought (at a fixed price) and sold (at an inflated price).
Needless to say, it didn't take long for people to figure out ways to con the already dodgy operation. Smugglers would buy salt from the cheapest provinces and sell it in the regions where it was most expensive at a higher price—though that price was still lower than the legal price of that region.
This, undoubtedly, was illegal, and the faux-sauniers, as they were called, faced heavy punishments if caught—the worst of which being death.
The gabelle had its grip on the French for five centuries until it was abolished in 1790 at which point the salt, we'd like to think, tasted a little bit sweeter.
The East India Trading Company came into fruition in the early 17th century when Queen Elizabeth I of England granted the company a royal charter and therefore legitimized and authorized the operation which focused mainly on trade with the East Indies (and ultimately the lower Indian continent and China).
Among the tea, silk, cotton, opium, and indigo dye that was traded to and fro, saltpetre—although a little less glamorous—was also traded. Saltpetre was used to ballast—or weigh down—the ships, but demand for it grew rather quickly when it was needed in large amounts for an entirely different purpose: gun powder.
Ever notice how several towns and cities in England end in –wich? You may be surprised to learn that these cities named with the –wich suffix (as well as –wych) were towns known to produce salt.
For example, the salt marshes of the four Cheshire wiches of Northwest England—Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich, and Leftwich, have been prime areas for salt production and continue to be to this day.
Although American history is quite brief compared to salt's history, our world's most prized and infinitely useful commodity has played an important role in our development as a nation. During the Revolutionary War, the British enlisted American Loyalists to intercept the Patriots' salt supplies in order to prevent them from being able to preserve their food. And in the War of 1812, the money-strapped government paid their soldiers with salt brine.