Some history should be taken with a grain of salt

(First published in The Christian Science Monitor, Dec 27, 2001 )

The paradox of salt is that it is one of the most common of substances, and yet, throughout most of human history, it has been expensive and difficult to obtain.

At Taghaza in the western Sahara, salt was quarried in 200-pound blocks. It was loaded two blocks per camel, and carried 500 miles to the trading city of Timbuktu, where merchants resold it throughout West Africa for gold. Back in Taghaza, meanwhile, the stuff was so common that even the hovels of slaves who worked in the mines were built from blocks of salt.

A commodity that was, well, as common as salt in some places, but worth piles of gold only a few hundred miles away, was the stuff that fortunes are made of. And since before the invention of refrigeration salt curing was virtually the only way of preserving fish, meat, cheese, or vegetables, people needed salt far more desperately than they do today.

In this sprawling history by anecdote, Kurlansky takes us from India, to Hawaii, to the Iron Age salt mines of Germany, peppering the route with surprising tidbits of knowledge.

Who knew that all of the English town names ending “wich,” from Nantwich, to Northwich, to Middlewich, once produced salt? The Anglo Saxons, it turns out, called a saltworks a “wich.”

And while I never acquired my dad’s appetite for salty fish roe, the most prized of which is called caviar, I was rather certain that sturgeon caviar only came from the Caspian Sea. But Kurlansky tells us that the medieval rivers of Europe were full of egg-bearing sturgeon. The King of France had the right to sturgeon caught in the Seine at Paris: Louis XVI ate the last one in 1782.

The amusing part is that the King ate the sturgeon steaks, not the caviar. Caviar was common stuff when sturgeon was a common fish. It was added to savory sauces as a flavoring and eaten by working people. Only after sturgeon were driven from European waters by overfishing and pollution did gourmets begin to pay small fortunes to eat salted fish eggs from mother-of-pearl spoons.

A casual reader might be forgiven the impression that salt has often been the leading factor in international trade. Just such overstatement was much of the fun of reading “Cod: The Fish that Changed the World” (1997).

With “Cod,” Kurlansky had a point. Thousands of Europeans chasing fish really did help shift the center of Western history from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. And “Cod” was a good story, with a beginning, a middle, and a poignant end in the fished-out Grand Banks.

Salt” is a thousand stories in search of a theme. In a whirlwind world tour, we start in China, fly to Egypt, then on to Germany. By the time we get to Rome, we know the drill. If there is no salt just lying around, the thing to do is develop evaporation ponds. To get rich, you want not merely to sell salt to other people, you want to find a commodity like fish that can be salted and sold for high prices. After you get rich, you can use salt to develop a high cuisine. Roman banquets involved such salt-cured ingredients as flamingo tongues and murex – the world’s most expensive mollusk.

Remarkable as these glimpses of ancient life are, the writing only picks up when we reach Basque country. Here is material that Kurlansky knows and loves: the commercial fleets of the North Atlantic and the cuisines of countries where winter closes the vegetable gardens for half of every year.

Kurlansky is a man who appreciates food. He can make us practically taste the classic French choucroute and appreciate the skill of German sauerkraut tailors, who knew just how to salt the cabbage and season it with a proprietary mix of elderberry, anise, cumin, and other herbs and spices. He certainly appreciates the distinction between the composed dish and the melded one.

“Salt” is something of an antipasto, an elegant dish of pickled vegetables, flavorful anchovies, smoky prosciutto, aged cheeses, and brine-cured olives.

Even though the foods on the platter are not melded into a unified whole, each tidbit, like each anecdote in this sprawling book, is worthy of savoring in its own right.

Diana Muir is the author of ‘Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England’ (University Press of New England).