Salt history

Salt history

Salt is the oldest condiment used by man and its importance to life is such that it has marked the development of history at every stage, with major economic, political and culinary repercussions on the various civilizations that have polished our culture and form of life.

It is of general use in all world gastronomy and industry, whether as a condiment, essential preservative for foods or in its non-alimentary uses.

Its history has been so intrinsically linked to major trade transactions that even today its legacy is conserved in the names of places such as the prehistoric Route du Sel in France or the Via Salaria in ancient Rome.

First references

The use of salt in food started during the time of the Chinese emperor Huangdi and reaches back to 2,670 BC. One of the first saltworks used for human alimentation is in the north of the Province of Shanxi, in a mountainous area full of salt lakes. It is highly likely that the summer sun evaporated the water of the lakes and the people of the area began to gather the salt crystals that formed on their surface. The first salt extractions using elaborated processes date back to the Xia Dynasty in 800 BC. At this time, salt water was placed in earthenware vessels and placed over a fire to obtain salt crystals through evaporation.

Many mummies have been found in the west which were preserved using salt sand from Egyptian deserts and date back to 3,000 BC. Ancient Egypt used it in cooking and in funeral rites. Egyptian salt came from the solar saltworks located near the delta of the Nile, but also from trade between the ports of the first Mediterranean cultures, particularly in Libya and Ethiopia. The Egyptians were already experts in the exportation of raw foodstuffs, but thanks to salt and its preservative qualities they were able to increase the number of tradable goods, thus becoming the first exporters of salted fish in Ancient Times.

Production in Europe

In Europe, the Hallein (salt mine) mines, in the vicinity of Salzburg (salt city), exploited by the Celts are some of the first contributions to the salt trade on the continent. As the Celts gave way to the advances of the Roman Empire, they transferred their knowledge on salt extraction and use to their conquerors.

At the beginning of the Empire, patricians insisted that each man was entitled to a portion of “common salt”, bestowing essential importance to this product. In fact, it was so relevant that most Roman cities built saltworks nearby. Some of the most important roads connecting trade centres and specific routes were named after salt, such as the Via Salaria. Even the origins of the term salary, derived from the Latin salarium, lie in the quantity of salt granted to Roman legionaries as payment for their army services.

The salt trade was consolidated during the Middle Ages, becoming a crucial element for food preservation and necessary for the survival of all communities, whose populations were growing at a high rate. Two great markets grew ever stronger as time passed by: the market of West Africa, where salt was the first commodity to keep the trans-Saharan gold trade afloat with the western world; and the second the enormous salting industry in the Netherlands during the 17th century, which had a marked influence on European imperialism.

Aware of the importance of salt, both the feudal lords and later monarchs charged tax for its use and exploitation, which during the time of absolute monarchy, was one of the most important incomes for royal families. In fact, the French tax called “la gabelle” caused many mutinies and uprisings and was one of the triggers of the French Revolution. This situation was maintained until the nineteenth century when the exploitation and sale of salt was declared free throughout Europe. It was liberalised in Spain in 1869.

Salt history

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