VOLUME 13 ... SALT OF THE EARTH

by Mario Fiorucci & Tara Longo

 

"It turned out that salt was a microcosm for one of the oldest concepts of nature and the order

of the universe. From the Chinese belief in the forces of yin and yang, to most of the

world’s religions, to modern science, to the basic principles of cooking, there has always

been a belief that two opposing forces find completion – one receiving a missing

part and the other shedding an extra one. A salt is a small but perfect thing.”

                           - an excerpt from “Salt – A World History”, by Mark Kurlansky

 

 

After The Healthy Butcher’s doors closed at the end of an insane Thanksgiving weekend, we jumped on a plane to Poland for a long overdue vacation (why Poland you ask? Well… why not? Besides, Tara’s half-Polish.  Her mom is the source of Babcia Ptak’s Pierogi’s that we can barely keep stocked in our freezer because of the demand). 

 

We are big fans of visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, and so beside the obvious tours of Crakow’s Historic Centre and the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, we made the effort to drive to the Wieliczka Salt Mines – the inspiration of this newsletter. 

 

The questions and answers surrounding the history, uses, sources, and types of salt can, and have, filled volumes.  Not only is salt one of the five senses humans can taste (the other four being sweet, sour, bitter, and the more recently confirmed, umami), salt surrounds every facet of our lives.  From getting more heat out of boiled water to treating sore throats, from melting ice on winter roads to the production of pulp and paper, soap, glass, and cosmetics, and from adding that final touch to your gourmet dishes to curing homemade prosciutto (the latter probably our overall favourite use), the prominence of salt in our lives cannot be denied.  Hopefully, this volume of Live to Eat answers most of your unanswered questions about this simple, yet remarkably important crystal.

 

Photo taken in the The Janowice Chamber, Wieliczka Salt Mine.  According to the legend, Kinga, daughter of Bela IV, King of Hungary, received as her dowry one of the salt mines in Marmaros. She cast her engagement ring into the mine. Her ring, together with salt deposits, miraculously traveled to Wieliczka. Having arrived in Poland, Kinga ordered the miners to dig in a particular place. Following her order, miners started digging, and in the first block of salt they found her ring. Since then salt has been plentiful in Poland. Kinga, the patroness of miners, was canonised in 1999 by Pope John Paul II.

continued below

 

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VOLUME 13 ... SALT OF THE EARTH

WHAT IS SALT?

Salt is a chemical term for a substance produced by the reaction of an acid with a base. More specifically, salt is an ionic compound composed of positively charged cations and negatively charged anions, so that the product is neutral.

In our gastro-lives, we are only concerned and interested in the one salt we know and love – sodium chloride or NaCl. Sodium is an unstable base metal that can suddenly burst into flame. Chlorine is a deadly poisonous acid gas. But when the two elements react, voilà – salt!

BRIEF HISTORY OF SALT

One would not be exaggerating to compare the salt trade’s importance during the 15th and 16th centuries with the political role of the oil trade in our own century. Until modern times, salt provided the principal way to preserve food. Naturally grazed animals were always slaughtered in the fall when they were at their optimum plumpness and salt provided the only feasible way of preserving the meat.

Salt was to the ancient Hebrews, and still is to modern Jews, the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant to Israel. On Friday night Jews dip the Sabbath bread in salt. In Judaism, bread is a symbol of food, which is a gift from God, and dipping the bread in salt preserves it – keeps the agreement between God and his people. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans included salt in sacrifices and offerings, and they invoked gods with salt and water, which is thought to be the origin of Christian holy water. In traditional Japanese theatre, salt was sprinkled on the stage before each performance to protect the actors from evil spirits. In Haiti, the only way to break the spell and bring a zombie back to life is with salt. And the list goes on – virtually every culture and religion in the world has a special significance for salt.

Almost no place on earth is without salt. But this was not clear until revealed by modern geology, and so for all of history until the 20th century, salt was desperately searched for, traded for, and fought over. It was often used as money. The search for salt has challenged engineers for millennia and created some of the most bizarre, along with some of the most ingenious, machines. A number of the greatest public works ever conceived were motivated by the need to move salt. Trade routes that have remained major thoroughfares were established, alliances built, empires secured, and revolutions provoked – all for something that fills the ocean, bubbles up from springs, forms crusts in lake beds, and thickly veins a large part of the earth’s rock fairly close to the surface.
 

SOURCES OF SALT

Whether from mines or sea, all the world’s salt came originally from sea water or ancient salt lakes. The most obvious source of salt are the oceans, which contain 2-3% salt. In the Mediterranean, the salt content of the eastern waters can rise to over 4%. Sea salt is gathered in open pools or ponds, after the water has entered and evaporated. Some areas, as in Greece, have rocky coasts where the waves fill natural hollows, leaving treasure-troves of salt for local use. But on an industrial scale, water is channelled into walled “Salinas”. In coastal countries of northern Europe where there insufficient solar heat to extract salt, sea salt must be obtained by replacing the sun’s heat from above with a fire’s heat from below – that is, by simmering the water. The most common sources for sea salt from water include the Mediterranean Sea, the North Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean (particularly in France, on the coast of Brittany).

Photo taken in the Chapel of Saint Kinga, Wieliczka Salt Mine.  Everything you see - floors, walls, ceilings, chandeliers, sculptures - were carved from solid rock salt.

The majority of salt in the world is extracted from mines or rock salt. The Wieliczka salt mine is the most impressive mine in Europe. This deposit of rock salt has been mined since the 13th century and is composed of 7.5 million square meters of post-excavation space on 9 levels, 2148 chambers, and 320 km of passages. Of course, we only travelled a small parcel of salt-land and ended up on level 3, at a depth of 135 metres.  Ironically, the most impressive aspect of the Wieliczka mine is the result of what the miners did in their spare time – carved religious figures, chapels, even elaborate chandeliers from salt crystal. In the pictures shown, everything you see – walls, floors, ceilings, chandeliers, statues – is carved out of salt!

Ontario is no stranger to salt mines. In 1866, the Goderich Petroleum Company was founded in Goderich, Ontario for the purposes of digging for oil. Samuel Platt began digging on the north bank of the Maitland River. After 686 feet of gray limestone, there was no sign of oil, so the stockholders who had provided $10,000 in start-up money wanted to abandon the project.

But the county council offered Platt a bonus of $1,000, and the city offered $500 provided he continue to a depth of 1,000 feet. At 964 feet, he hit solid rock salt. The Goderich Salt Company was founded with fifty-two boiling kettles, and the Ontario salt fields have become one of the most productive saltworks in the modern world (the company is now called Sifto… sound familiar?? – click here for more info.

OUR NEED FOR SALT

Salt has a bad rap these days – mainly because people choose to eat more salt than they need, and they eat the wrong kind of salt. The fact is sodium chloride is essential to life on Earth. Sodium functions as an electrolyte, as do potassium, calcium, and magnesium, all of which regulate the electrical charges within our cells. Chloride supports potassium absorption and helps oversee the body’s acid and base balance, enhances carbon dioxide transportation, and is an essential component of digestive acids. An average adult human contains about 250g of salt, which would fill three or four salt shakers, but is constantly losing it through bodily functions. Health Canada’s recommendation for sodium chloride intake (“Adequate Intake”) is 3.8g per day “to ensure that the overall diet provides an adequate intake of other important nutrients and to cover sodium sweat losses in unacclimatized individuals who are exposed to high temperatures or who become physically active as recommended” (click here for a detailed report).

 

Keep in mind the recommended salt intake includes salt consumed through all foods. Most food we eat (outside of vegetables) contains salt – even meat contains small amounts of salt. The Masai, nomadic cattle herders in East Africa (see picture), meet their salt needs by bleeding livestock and drinking the blood.  Unfortunately, most processed foods contain far more salt than you need. Moreover, like virtually all other food related problems, the issue with salt can be pegged to the advent of industrialization.

Tara and Mario with the Masai tribe in Tanzania, Africa. 

The Masai's sodium intake comes solely from drinking

the blood of their cows.

Typical table salt you buy in the grocery store has been heated up to 1500F and refined to remove most of the natural elements. If the chemical “cleaning” of the salt isn’t bad enough already, other chemicals get added – such as anticaking agents to improve the storage and handling characteristics, including tricalcium phosphate, calcium or magnesium carbonates, magnesium oxide, silicon dioxide, sodium alumino-silicate, and alumino-calcium silicate (the latter two aluminum-based compounds have been subject to a lot of criticism lately).

Natural sea or rock salt usually contains

 the following elements:

  • Sodium 31%

  • Chloride 55%

  • Sulfate 7.7%

  • Magnesium 3.7%

  • Calcium 1.2%

  • Potassium 1.1%

  • Iron 10ppm

  • Copper 3ppm

  • Other trace minerals

Natural salt crystals contain not only sodium chloride, but many other natural elements; the same elements of which our bodies are composed and found existing in the “primal ocean” from where all life originated. Sodium chloride requires its natural counterparts, such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and other minerals and trace elements to equalize absorption into the body. In essence, not only is typical table salt an “empty” food, but minerals and vitamins in your body must be used to aid absorption – so the “pure” sodium chloride becomes a negative nutrient.

So, if natural sea salt is so much healthier for you than industrially produced table salt, why is most of the salt available the industrial variety? Two reasons: First, it is cheaper to produce typical grocery store table salt on mass scales than to harvest natural sea salt. Second, and more important, less than 7% of all salt produced goes into the food market – the majority is used in huge industries that require “clean” salt (pulp and paper, textiles, soap, glass, cosmetics, etc.). Yes, that’s right – table salt is essentially the exact same salt that is produced for industries (packaged in smaller quantities, of course). The problems with salt are the same problems with meat – and the reason why we opened an organic butcher shop.

TYPES & FLAVOURS OF SALT

The way we like to categorize salt is to think of it as either refined or unrefined. As we said above, all salt originated from the sea – so “sea salt” isn’t just salt directly extracted from the water, but also from mines. The main difference is the refining process.

REFINED SALT:

Table Salt – Created from rock salt extracted from mines, which is heated to up to 1500F to remove other minerals naturally found in salt, and is chemically processed to achieve specific storage and handling requirements. Most table salt is fine-grained.

Iodized Salt – Is table salt with added iodine (usually in the form of potassium iodide). The process of adding iodine started in 1924 when the Morton Salt Company began adding iodine to help prevent goiters, which at the time was typically caused by iodine deficiency.  Approximately 70% of table salt consumed is iodized. Iodine deficiency has been virtually eliminated in North America, but it still presents a health problem in many countries around the world. Also note that with the increased popularity of natural sea salt, there are concerns that we may not be ingesting sufficient iodine. Natural sources of iodine include sea kelp, onions, seafood, meat from animals that graze in coastal areas, and fruits and vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil. Most multi-vitamin supplements include iodine.

Kosher Salt – is generally a derivative of regular table salt, but is coarse-grained and usually contains less additives (especially magnesium carbonate which clouds brine solutions). It is so named for its use in the preparation of meat according to the requirements of Jewish dietary guidelines. The Torah prohibits consumption of any blood, which is why kosher meat must be slaughtered and prepared in a specific manner. A common way of removing the final traces of blood from meat is to soak and salt it, and kosher salt – due to the larger size and shape of its granules – is more effective at absorbing moisture from meat.

Also due to the larger shape of the granules, there is simply less salt in a pinch of kosher salt than in a pinch of table salt making it more appropriate for adding to the rim of your margarita glass or to recipes that call for a salt crust. You’ll require roughly double the amount of kosher salt than the finer grained table or iodized salt to achieve the same saltiness.

UNREFINED SALT:

The differences in flavour of natural salts are mainly based on the unique mineral content depending on the source. Himalayan Salt is pink in colour which is indicative of its high iron content. Celtic Sea Salt, also known as Gray Salt or Sel Gris, is gray because of the colour of the clay found in the salt flats. The next time you’re in The Healthy Butcher, pickup a few bottles of salt on our shelves and you’ll notice the huge differences in appearance. Texture is also a key component in how we taste the salt – large grains, small crystals, wafer flakes, etc. – each create a different sensation in your mouth. Some sea and rock salts actually taste saltier than the same amount of table salt, so for those of you cutting down on salt intake, you can get more flavour with less sodium.

Sea Salt – includes salt extracted by evaporation in Salinas and lake salt, as well as rock salt from mines. The generic sea salt you find in the supermarket may not be additive free, so check the label carefully to find out where it is from and what it contains. The best known of all-natural sea salt, and often considered the best quality, comes from the coast of Brittany in France where salt farmers have been harvesting salt for centuries. The salt from this area occurs naturally as large-grained crystals that are light gray in colour and are known as Sel Gris (French for Gray Salt) or Celtic Sea Salt. Other famous sea salts come from Hawaii, Maldon in England, and from the west coast of Sicily.

Fleur de Sel – perhaps the only type of salt that is more highly regarded than Celtic Sea Salt. Fleur de Sel (meaning “flowers of salt”, the crystals look like lacy snowflakes) is hand harvested from the surface of the salt evaporation ponds where it forms when winds are calm and the weather is warm and sunny. True Fleur de Sel comes from the Guérande region of France where, like fine wine regions, different areas within Guérande produce salts with their own unique flavors and aroma profiles. The Algarve region of Portugal is becoming known for its variant called “Flor de Sal”. You’ll notice in our list of salts below that the only Fleur de Sel variant we carry is from the Algarve – at 5.4¢/gram, it is less expensive than most French varieties and the quality is comparable, if not better. Fleur de Sel taste is delicate, does not sear the tip of your tongue, and is ideal for salads, cooked fresh vegetables and for finishing grilled meats.

Organic Salt – realistically, all unrefined sea salt is organic. That being said, there are a few organizations around the world certifying salt as “Certified Organic” by regulating the purity of the water used, cleanliness of the salt beds, and procedures for harvesting and packaging the salt.

THE HEALTHY BUTCHER'S SELECTION OF SEA SALTS

Our selection of sea salts, although not extensive, is representative of several types from around the world. As with wine, the quality of a sea salt must be considered alongside it’s price, so we’ve listed the salts in order from least expensive to most expensive on a cost per gram basis (shown in brackets). All of these salts are excellent and have their own unique characteristics.

If you’re looking for a unique gift for your foodie friend, wrap up the latter four salts on the list – it’s a sampling of four wonderful and completely different salts – and all are beautifully packaged. Just say that you want the “Live to Eat Discount” and you’ll get all four salts for $42.98 (a 10% savings).

  • Ta-Ze Sundried Sea Salt – Turkey – 500ml, approx. 520g for $6.49 (1.2¢/gram). This bottle of Aegean Sea Salt is one of those rare finds on the culinary shelves that make you scratch you head and say “hmm… why is this so cheap?” It is a perfect salt for finishing your meats, raw vegetables or salads. And it’s course size make it great for a hand grinder.   BEST OVERALL VALUE.

  • Maldon Sea Salt – Maldon, England – 240g for $8.69 (3.6¢/gram). This company still employs the ancient craft of hand-harvesting the salt crystals using traditional long handled rakes – a process known as “drawing the pans”. This salt has a clean, fresh taste and is distinctively salty taste means less is required – an advantage for those who wish to reduce their salt intake.   A CHEF’S FAVOURITE AROUND THE WORLD.

  • L’Himalayen Pink Salt – Himalayan Mountains, Pakistan – 250g for $10.99 (4.4¢/gram) – The Himalayas are referred to as “the original source of salt”. They are the result of the collision of the Indo-Australian and Eurasian plates, causing the disappearance of the former Thetys ocean over 200 million years ago. Naturally rich through water filtering by mineral-rich magma over millions of years. Its pink-speckled crystals are evidence of the iron trapped within.   OUR PERSONAL FAVOURITE.

  • Belamandil Flor de Sal – Algarve, Portugal – 125g for $6.79 (5.4¢/gram). 100% unprocessed sea flower from the Atlantic Ocean. Measured to have a good mix of magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, and iodine.   BEST VALUE FLEUR DE SEL WE HAVE EVER COME ACROSS.

  • Celtic Sea Salt – Brittany, France – 226g for $14.99 (6.6¢/gram). A product of natural crystallization on the ocean waters near Brittany, France. It retains the ocean’s true essence, containing naturally occurring minerals.

  • Jurassic Sea Salt – Utah, U.S. – 226g for $14.99 (6.6¢/gram). Harvested from the Utah valleys. Called “Jurassic” because the salt trapped in the Utah valleys is a result of sea levels rising during the Jurassic Period (150 million years ago). Not refined, so contains trace minerals. Its pink-speckled crystals are evidence of the iron trapped within.

 

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