Salt Licks: My Old Friend

Maldon sea salt

As I touched on in a previous post, salt is commonly obtained in one of two ways, from the sea or mined, and those methods go back millennia.  Rock salt occurs in vast beds of sedimentary minerals, the last reminder of dried up lakes and seas.  In the United States and Canada extensive underground beds.  In the United Kingdom underground beds are found in Cheshire and Droitwich.  Austria of course has Salzburg with the unsubtly named “the city of salt” for its mines.

Salt’s ability to preserve food was vital to civilization’s development as it eliminated dependence on the seasonal availability of food, and allowed people to travel over considerable distances.  Never mind that it was (and is) the most popular seasoning.   However, salt was difficult to obtain, and so it was a highly valued trade item, which followed the pull of economics along salt roads, some of which were established in the Bronze age.

Salts Mixed Use in History

Aside from being a contributing factor in the development of civilization, salt was valued by from the Romans and Greeks to the Hebrew and Chinese.  Salt was included in the funeral offerings found in ancient Egyptian tombs.  The Romans, for example, controlled the price of salt, they raised it to support wars, and lowered it to allow the poor to easily afford this vital addition to their diet.  In Rome’s early years, roads were built to easily transport salt to the capital city.  An example was the Via Salaria (originally a Sabine trail), leading from Rome to the Adriatic Sea.  The Adriatic Sea was a better source of salt due to a high salinity due to its shallow depth, and consequently more productive solar ponds that the Tyrrhenian Sea, despite its proximity to Rome.

Hallstatt gave its name to the Celtic archaeological culture that began mining for salt in the vicinity back around 800 BC. Around 400 BC, the Hallstatt Celts, switched to open pan salt making. During the first millennium BC, Celtic communities grew rich trading salt and salted meat to Ancient Greece and Rome in exchange for wine and other luxuries.

Cities and wars

Salt has played a prominent role in determining the power and location of the world’s great cities. Liverpool grew from an insignificant English port to a prime exporting port for the salt dug in the great Cheshire salt mines.

Salt created and destroyed empires. The salt mines of Poland led to a vast kingdom in the 1500s, only to be toppled when Germans countered with sea salt. Venice won a war with Genoa over salt.  Salt was also used in the retaliatory practice of salting the earth of a destroyed city as a curse on the population, or against a traitor on his lands.

Cities, states and duchies along the salt roads exacted heavy duties and taxes for the salt passing through their territories. This practice led to the formation of cities, such as the city of Munich in 1158, when a bridge was built, near a monastery, on a salt route to extract a toll.

The gabelle — a despised French salt tax — was enacted in 1286 and maintained until 1790. Because of the gabelles, common salt was of such a high value that it caused mass population shifts and exodus, attracted invaders and caused wars.

During many wars in American history, salt has been a major factor in the outcome. In the Revolutionary War, the British intercepted the rebels’ salt supply to destroy their ability to preserve food.  This history is covered in fascinating detail in the book:  McIlhenny’s Gold – How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire, by Jeffery Rothfeder.  [The island that housed the Tabasco empire started life as a salt works.]

English “wich” towns

Mark Kurlansky in his book, Salt – A World History, gives a quick lesson on why English towns often ended in “wich” and “wych”.  They were names used to denote brine springs or wells in England. Originally derived from the Latin vicus, meaning place, by the 11th century use of the ‘wich’ suffix in placenames was associated with towns with salt production.  Several English places carry the suffix and are historically related to salt, including the four Cheshire ‘wiches’ of Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich and Leftwich (a small village south of Northwich), and Droitwich in Worcestershire.  Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich and Droitwich were all mentioned in the Domesday Book, as “an indication of the significance of the salt-working towns in the economy of the region, and indeed of the country”.

Salt trade

Shrewd businessmen determined it was more profitable to sell salted food than pure salt. The food source and salt making were intertwined, for example, the British controlled saltworks in the Bahamas and North American cod fisheries so salted cod was a natural product offering.  As described in the sea salt section – having a complimentary industry near by was a criteria for success in determining where to set up shop to produce sea salt.

Earth Salt or Mined Salt

A salt mine is a set up to extract salt from the earth. Early endeavors were extremely dangerous and consequently left to prisoners or slaves.  In the second half of the 19th century the internal combustion engine was introduced, allowing new drilling techniques to discover more deposits, thereby increasing earth salt’s share of the market, compared to sea salt. Although mining salt was generally more expensive than the solar extraction of seawater, the introduction of this new source reduced the price of salt due to a reduction of monopolization.

Areas known for their salt mines include Kilroot, Ireland, Khewra in Pakistan, Tuzla in Bosnia, Wieliczka and Bochnia in Poland, Hallstatt and Salzkammergut in Austria, Rheinberg in Germany, Slănic in Romania, Provadiya in Bulgaria, Avery Island in Louisiana (home of Tabacso Sauce), United States, the “wich” towns in England, and the Detroit Salt Company’s 1,500-acre subterranean complex beneath the city of Detroit – its “City Under the City“.   The Sifto Salt Mine in Goderich, Ontario, Canada is one of the largest salt mines in the world, measuring 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide and 2 miles (3.2 km) long. Today most salt mines are operated by large multi-national companies like Cargill and Compass Minerals.

An example of one such mine is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in the town of Wieliczka in southern Poland, near Kraków. The mine continuously produced table salt from the 13th century until 2007 as one of the world’s oldest operating salt mines.   The mine’s attractions for tourists include dozens of statues and an entire cathedral that have been carved out of the rock salt by the miners.

The Wieliczka is open for tourist, and along the part they can access are historic statues and mythical figures, all carved of salt.  Even the crystals of the chandeliers are made from rock salt that was dissolved and reconstituted to achieve a clear, glass-like appearance. The rock salt is naturally grey in various shades, so that the carvings resemble unpolished granite rather than the white, crystalline appearance that may have been expected.  Also found within the mine is a large cathedral and reception room that can be reserved for private functions (imagine having a wedding here).  The Wieliczka mine is often referred to as “the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland.”  During World War II, the salt mine was used by the occupying Germans as facilities for war-related industries, and in 1978 the Wieliczka salt mine was placed on the original UNESCO list of the World Heritage Sites.

Sea Salt

a final product

Where mineral salt has been readily obtainable it has long been mined. The salt mines of Hallstatt go back at least to the Iron Age. If no salt mines were available, coastal sources were considered suitable alternatives and have been exploited for thousands of years. The principle of the production is the evaporation of the water from the brine of the sea. In warm and dry climates this may be done entirely by solar energy, but in other climates, fuel is required, consequently production was pushed primarily to the Mediterranean and other warm, dry climates, as solar power is the cheapest fuel source compared to fire or other alternative measures. These arrangements are called salt works, formerly “salterns”. Typically, three criteria (better yet, all four) were met before an ancient saltern was established:

  1. Access to a market to sell the salt.
  2. A gently-shelving coast, protected from exposure to the open sea.
  3. A cheap and easily worked fuel supply; preferably, the sun.
  4. Preferably, another trade could form a symbiotic relationship such as cattle raising and tanning – two industries that required salt to make leather or salted meat.

The dilute brine of the sea was largely evaporated by the sun, and the concentrated slurry of salt and mud was scraped up. The slurry was washed with clean sea water so that the impurities settled out of the now concentrated brine. This was poured into shallow pans lightly baked from the local marine clay, which were set on fist-sized clay pillars over a peat fire for the final evaporation. The dried salt was then scraped out and sold.

Solar evaporation

In the correct climate (one for which the ratio of evaporation to rainfall is suitably high) it is possible to use solar evaporation of sea water to produce salt. Brine is evaporated in a linked set of ponds until the solution is sufficiently concentrated that the salt crystallises on the pond’s floor.

Open pan production

One of the traditional methods of salt production in more temperate climates involves open pans, in which the brine is heated in large, shallow open pans.  These pans were initially made of ceramics known as briquetage, or lead, and then moved to lead (known as “leddes”.   This change coincided with a change from wood to coal for the purpose of heating the brine.  Brine was pumped into the pans, and concentrated by the heat of the fire burning beneath. As crystals of salt formed these would be raked out and more brine added. Subsequently, the open pan salt works was replaced with a closed pan system where the brine solution is evaporated under a partial vacuum.

Salt in religion

The use of salt in numerous religious ceremonies further highlights the esteem to which it was held.

The number of biblical references indicates the esteem in which salt was held – forty-one references in the King James version of the bible.  For example:

In the Old Testament, Mosaic law called for salt to be added to all burnt animal sacrifices (Lev. 2:13).

The Book of Ezra (550 BC to 450 BC) associated accepting salt from a person with being in that person’s service. In Ezra 4:14, the servants of Artaxerxes I of Persia explain their loyalty to the King. When translated, it is either stated literally as “because we have eaten the salt of the palace” or more figuratively as “because we have maintenance from the king.”

In the New Testament, Matthew 5:13 Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

The apostle Paul also encouraged Christians to “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6).

In a Hadith recorded in Sunan Ibn Majah, Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that: “Salt is the master of your food. God sent down four blessings from the sky – fire, water, iron and salt”.  He also recommended beginning and ending each meal with a pinch of salt.  “From the one who begins a meal with salt, Allah wards off three hundred and thirty kinds of diseases, the least of which are lunacy, leprosy, bowel troubles, and toothache…”

In the native Japanese religion Shinto, salt is used for ritual purification of locations and people.  A small pile of mori shio (mound of salt) is left by the door so that people are purified as they pass through.

In Aztec mythology, Huixtocihuatl was a fertility goddess who presided over salt and salt water.

To appreciate the value salt had placed on it, one has only to consider the myriad of expressions containing salt. In ancient Rome, salt on the table signaled a rich patron (and those who shared the host’s table were “above the salt”,  while servants sat at a lower trestle table and were “below the salt”).   So if someone tells you that you are “worth your weight in salt” or you are “salt of the earth” take it as the compliment it surely is.

To show salts versatility, this recipe for Salted Caramel Frosting shall do the trick.  Its my new favorite “go to” frosting and goes well, with every sort of cake you can imagine.  As I am a chocolate lover, I’m partial to a dark fudgey cake topped with this frosting.

Salted Caramel Frosting


¼ cup granulated sugar
2 T water
1/3 c heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
12 T unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp kosher salt
1 c powdered sugar


Stir together granulated sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking, without stirring, until mixture turns dark amber in color, about 6 to 7 minutes.  Remove from heat and slowly add in cream and vanilla, stirring until completely smooth. Set aside until cool to the touch, about 25 minutes.

Combine butter and salt and beat until light in color and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, add powdered sugar, and mix until completely incorporated.  Add caramel. Beat frosting on medium-high speed until airy and thoroughly mixed, about 2 minutes. Cover and refrigerate until stiff, about 45 minutes, before using.

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26 comments for “Salt Licks: My Old Friend

  1. March 14, 2010 at 5:35 PM

    I can’t cook without salt, that’s very important in cooking. Without it, my soup is tasteless and my dish would be dull.
    Once again, you post is very informative with succinct descriptions. Thanks a lot.

  2. March 14, 2010 at 6:28 PM

    Salt is an utterly fascinating topic with a truly absorbing history. You’ve reminded me (again) that I need to finish reading Mark Kurlansky’s book, it’s here somewhere on the pile beside my bed!

  3. March 14, 2010 at 10:11 PM

    Salted caramel frosting? Oh my gawd! Seriously, I want to just spread that on everything — from my morning toast to my evening anything. 😉

  4. March 14, 2010 at 11:20 PM

    Oooo….I like the wound that that frosting!!! I once wondered where we would all be without salt. It’s one of the most fundamental ingredients in cooking.

  5. March 15, 2010 at 4:30 AM

    Another great post on salt! Never ceases to be fascinating!! Just love the idea of that frosting, who would have thought!!

  6. March 15, 2010 at 5:20 AM

    Salted Caramel – a delicious combination! I’m heading to Austria in a few weeks…the Western parts for some alpine hiking. I kept coming across references to salt while doing research on what else to visit. Thanks for some more detailed info.

  7. March 15, 2010 at 5:53 AM

    Fascinating. Salt permeates itself into a all cultures and throughout history. That little salt shakes has a mighty background. The frosting sounds divine.

  8. admin
    March 15, 2010 at 6:08 AM

    Christine – I agree, salt is the sparkle to a dish, without it, food just does not have the same kick

    Spud – No kidding, my toughest task with putting together this post was trimming it down. It is fascinating.

    Carolyn – a new addiction for me. First sampled it at Arizmendi’s and tried to not look back, only to control how much I take in! =)

    Jenn – I agree, kind of hard to imagine a world without salt.

    Ruth – Thanks, and this frosting is delicious and like I mentioned very versatile.

    Gastro – Oh, off to Austria, how fun. I love that country and the Western part is incredibly beautiful. Yup, if you are up around Salzburg – there’s a few big salt mines close to each other. I am guessing you are headed that way if salt popped up in your search.

    Claudia – Agreed, I wonder how different history would be if we took out salts contribution?

  9. March 15, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    I love Salted Caramel Frosting–topped my boyfriends birthday cupcakes with it last year. It’s so important in cooking and just a little bit make a huge difference. Thanks again for such great history.

  10. March 15, 2010 at 5:24 PM

    What a coincidence! I just made some salted caramel over the weekend! Great post as always. Your site is becoming a food encyclopedia.
    I wanted to add to your Japanese tradition that salt used in sumo wrestling is for the same purpose – purifying the ring and removing evil spirits. 🙂

  11. March 15, 2010 at 5:50 PM

    Salted caramel sounds delicious!I can’t live without salt ;-)Your blog is amazing!

  12. March 15, 2010 at 7:41 PM

    I love the idea of salted caramel frosting! Great info!

  13. March 16, 2010 at 2:49 PM

    Interesting to learn of the locations of salt production around the world. The salt cathedral sounds amazing too.

  14. March 16, 2010 at 10:37 PM

    Salt was a coin in the past and it’s still a “currency” in some African regions.
    Your salted caramel sounds fantastic 🙂

    Have a great week,


  15. March 17, 2010 at 1:37 AM

    I once went to a salt free diet and oh my gosh, I will never do that again. Thanks for sharing the recipe, what a great combination of ingredients.

  16. March 17, 2010 at 3:19 AM

    Very informative. Thanks.
    If a documentary could be made out of this, I would definitely keep it. 🙂

  17. March 17, 2010 at 10:35 AM

    Great job on this post! It is so detailed and rich with the history of something that I take for granted today. I’m looking forward to reading the book Salt – A World History, and maybe visiting a couple of these ancient salt mining towns one day.

  18. March 17, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    What great history and information on salt! So interesting. It makes you realize just how important it is. I know I can’t go a day without it. The frosting sounds insanely good!

  19. March 17, 2010 at 9:45 PM

    Wow, this is good and interesting post about salt….!

  20. March 18, 2010 at 5:12 AM

    My husband comes from a German town, Niedernhall, which was founded because of their wealth in salt. Amazing what there is to learn about an item we so take for granted.

  21. March 18, 2010 at 5:26 AM

    I’m embarrassed to say that I have been itching to go to Salzburg for a while now (we love Vienna) and had no idea of the relationship to salt. You would have thought the name would give me a hint. Needless to say I learned a lot here! And that frosting – I simply have to try it!

  22. March 18, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    Salt is just SO precious. Funny, because it’s one of the cheapest things now (table salt, that is). In Korea, salt was a really rare and priceless commodity…esp since people can’t live without it!

  23. Pingback: Salt Glaze
  24. admin
    March 19, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    Lisa – my pleasure, have a great Friday!

    Kitchen M – Great minds think alike. Also thanks so much for mentioning the sumo wrestlers. I saw that listing in Wikipedia, but was not able to find another reference so I did not include it – thought it was a neat bit of info.

    Erica – Thanks!

    Natasha – The salted caramel frosting is yummy, and I really love its versatility!

    Lisa – I’m with you, maybe sometime we can do a bloggers dinner there =) I really want to explore it!

    Gera – you are right there are many references to salt being traded in place of money.

    A+A – you are incredible brave – cold turkey on salt – wow!

    Tigerfish – Thanks! I just really want to explore one of those salt mines!

    Christine – that book is a fun read, and I’m with you on visiting a salt mine – he did a great job describing it in the book!

    Reeni – Thanks – in your hands that frosting will be insane! I sense it.

    Pete – Thanks

    Crystal – I agree, its always interesting to understand what the backstory is.

    Lori – You will love Salzburg – totally different vibe – its a beautiful town and if you visit the salt mines, let me know!!

    Sophia – I agree – the today’s price certainly does not reflect its value.

  25. March 19, 2010 at 10:21 PM

    Yeah, I never trust Wikipedia. Thanks for not linking their source! 😉

  26. March 19, 2010 at 10:25 PM

    sorry, what I actually meant was… thanks for not linking them as a source (or reference)!

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