salt crystalsAs I’m writing a book that I’ve titled “The Salt Man”, and the importance of salt as a commodity is a key part of the story, I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of salt. So I got a book called “Salt“! And it’s a fascinating read.

All of us who did chemistry in school will no doubt remember it being drilled into us that “acid + base = salt + water”. There are many salts, particularly of reactive metals like sodium and potassium. But, of course, it’s the sodium salts that we generally think of when we use the term. Particularly sodium chloride. This salt preserves, dries, lowers the freezing point of water, kills bacteria and keeps away evil spirits. The devil and demons apparently hate salt; I guess the myth has developed because salt is an anti-corrupting agent. And since we began to farm animals and crops around 6-7 thousand years ago, we’ve needed to supplement our diet with salt, and the diet of farmed animals. We simply can’t live without it.

To the Romans it was vital. They taxed it, controlled the price of it from time to time and even sometimes paid their soldiers a part of their salary (hence the term) with it. And they used it to preserve food, especially fish. They also made the smelly but highly-prized fish sauce called “garum” with it too. They developed salt works throughout their empire, including both mining and brine evaporation methods. But the thing that has interested me the most is the mythology that has grown up around salt. How many of us still throw salt over our left shoulder if we spill any? Left, because that is the “sinister” side and is the shoulder the devil is meant to look over, if you’re of a Christian persuasion. Sorry to any left-handed folk reading this 🙂

There are many legends about why the sea is salty, too. In some Norse tales a whirlpool to the north of the Orkney Islands, known as the Swelki (from the old Norse meaning “mill”), is caused by the sea water being drawn into an enormous mill which is being constantly turned by two female giants. The mill originally turned out good things, but the giants cursed it to  turn out only salt after they had been enslaved there.

All human cultures and societies have legends about salt, from Native Americans to Chinese. But I think my favourite thing about salt is that it facilitated the making of ice cream!