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Herbs Section

Precious salt

Today we take our herbs and spices for granted. Although literally, salt is not a herb because it isn't derived from a plant, I have included it here because we use it as if it was another herb.

Salt is a common item in any kitchen now but it wasn't always that way. It was so valuable, during the Roman times that once a month, they paid their soldiers a quantity of coin to purchase salt while on campaigns. The soldiers realised that their salt was a valuable trading commodity and the misconception was born - the Romans did not pay their soldiers in salt as the myth claims. They paid their solders a quantity of coin, once a month, to buy salt with. The soldier would often hoard this salt for sale in towns where salt was hard to get. In Latin salt is "sal" or "salare" and the money for salt was a salary, giving rise to the name we use today to describe a wage paid monthly.

a pile of cooking salt

Cooking salt has course granules

Salt is sold at the supermarket in two types and two forms and it pays to know the difference:

Cooking salt – these crystals are much larger and won't pass through the holes in most salt shakers. If you stock this type of salt, make sure you clearly label it in your pantry to avoid a lot of frustration at the dinner table.

Table salt – fine crystals of salt that will easily pass through the holes in a salt shaker are sold either as iodised or plain. We tend to be low on iodine in our diet, so buy iodised salt for table use.

Plain salt – This is salt straight from the production process and is available as cooking salt or table salt.

Iodised salt – Because we eat so much processed food, we have a low iodine dietary intake. This can cause health problems like goitre, a tumorous growth of the thyroid glands. To compensate, we add iodine to salt, to create iodised salt. Usually only table salt is available in iodised form and tastes no different from plain salt. Iodised salt is preferable for improved health. In our ancestors time, it occurred naturally in salt.

You can also buy sea salt. Rather strange since most of our salt comes from the sea anyway, I suspect this is a marketing gimmick but don't take my word for it, test it for yourself and see if you can find any difference in taste. I suspect it's just those crystals that were too big to make the cooking salt grade, were bagged and given a classy promotion with some popular chefs who needed to earn a few extra dollars

a pile of table salt

Table salt has finer granules than cooking salt, that will easily pass through the holes in a salt shaker.

Because most salt that was consumed came from the sea, and contains small amounts of iodine, the medical condition called goiter which is commonly caused by an Iodine deficiency, was very rare. As trade developed, our diet came to include salt from other sources, without any Iodine. Today goitre is much more common in our population as a result.

Today we consume far too much salt. It's added to almost everything we eat and we are told it's over consumption is responsible for high blood pressure and related to many forms of cardiac disease. Many countries are pressuring food manufacturers to reduce the salt content in their products.

History

Even back in Neolithic times, salt was a precious commodity. Have you ever stopped to wonder why everyone didn't just evaporate their own salt, when seven tenths of the world is covered in salt water?

It's not easy to extract that salt. It requires large shallow ponds to trap the water and months of hot dry weather to evaporate out the water and leave the salt behind. That may sound easy today, but with no earthmoving equipment and a lifestyle that required nearly all your waking time to find enough food and shelter, evaporating seawater was a task beyond most civilisations. Most salt was mined from rock salt deposits and traded or arrived by caravan from far away hot climates. Occasionally it was transported by ship. As ship design improved, this method replaced the salt traded from caravans in the coastal cities with salt brought in by ships. This gave rise to some weird tales of ghost ships - ships seen to sink then reappear afloat after they had sunk, without any crews. Before the days when ships carried heavy engines, if a ship with a cargo of salt sank, once the salt dissolved, it would resurface, creating terrifying tales of ghost crews sailing a rotting ship, doomed forever to sail the stormy seas, never to find peace. Of course these tales grew with each telling.

Sailing ship in mist

When ships with soluble cargoes like salt, sank, they could refloat once their cargo dissolved, giving rise to terrible tales of ghost ships with dead crew, like the Flying Dutchman and Marie Celeste.

Unlike coins, salt was consumed by everyone. It was therefore a valuable trade product. In Africa, towns sprang up with markets along trade routes where caravans traded goods for slabs of salt.

In Ancient China they boiled vats of brine to extract the salt and in this way, they were not dependent on long spells of hot dry weather to produce salt.

Zigong salt works China

Brine being boiled down to extract sea salt at the Xinhai Well in Zigong, China. It has been done this way for over 1,000 years here.

Salt production was an important industry since the beginning of civilisation. In England places with "wich" or "wic" in their names produced salt, usually from salty wells. The Incas, in mountainous country, where farmland was at a premium, devoted large quantities of valuable terraced land to salt drying ponds.

Ancient Inca salt pans in MMaras Peru

Salt production was an important industry. The Incas devoted valuable terraced land that would have been valuable farmland, to salt production as we can see in Maras, Peru.

Why was salt so important?

As a flavouring - in a culture where meat was a luxury in the cold winters, the addition of a little salt, made soups and stews taste like there was a lot more meat in it. Salt also had mystical properties, in an age of superstition, salt was believed to be a barrier that evil could not step over. Even today it is used in modern Wiccan ceremonies.

Coconut Palms

Indonesia's Lethal Food

Did you know that at least 1000 people die in Indonesia every year from falling coconuts? Worldwide, they are more lethal than sharks. A coconut can weigh 5kg and a coconut palm can be up to 30 metres tall.

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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Salt as a preservative

Salt was not only prized for it's flavour. The coming of winter meant a time of famine. No grass would grow to feed stock, even in areas that were not covered in snow. Some summer grass was cut and stored as hay or silage. A few of the best animals were kept over winter and fed with the stored hay. These would be used to start the herds and flocks off again next spring. All other livestock was slaughtered and as much as possible was preserved.

Salting - The meat would be rubbed in salt, to reduce the moisture content, which harmful bacteria need. It was then hung in a cool dry place and rubbed repeatedly with salt which would eventually draw out all the moisture, preserving the meat.

Smoking - Salted or brine cured meat cuts would be hung over a smoky fire. Since fires were usually kept burning all winter, the creosotes from the smoke coated the meat and over time were absorbed through the entire thickness of the meat, discouraging bacteria from spoiling the meat and giving the meat a smoked flavour. Some of these preserved meats are considered delicacies today, like bacon, prosciuto, kippered herrings, smoked cod, salamis, ham and beef jerky.

Bacon

Bacon is salted and smoked pork

Corning - For preserving meat for shorter periods, it was cut up into chunks and immersed in a barrel of brine, a solution of water and salt, high in salt. Although this slowed bacteria from decaying the meat, the meat took on a greenish grey hue. Later someone discovered that adding saltpeter to the brine, retained the meat's redness, making it look far more palatable. This process became known as "corning" and is still used today to make Corned Beef.

Pickling - this was a similar process to corning but spices are added to the brine. Pork was often pickled to preserve it for shorter periods than smoking. This process was far more common with vegetables. Today sauerkraut, olives, gherkins, herrings, sardines, anchovies and anti pasta are all preserved this way with brine or alternatively with vinegar.

Salt was so important as a preservative and flavouring that in ancient times trade routes were established to transport salt from the mines and drying ponds in warm clmate areas to the towns many hundreds of miles away, often on a differents continent by ship and salt caravans. Africa with it's warm dry climate was a major source of salt. Here in Ahamedala today salt miners lever up a slab of dried salt from the saltpan - a dried up salt lake, in the same way they did in the bronze age.

Ahamedala salt miners

Ahamedala salt miners lever up a slab of dried salt from the salt pan - a dried up salt lake.

It will be cut into smaller slabs and loaded onto the salt caravan. It has been done this way since the Romans developed the salt caravan trade route into Europe in Pre-Christian times.

Salt Caravan

A salt caravan - salt has been transported from the mines to the markets this way for thousands of years

Basket of Fresh herbs

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