Recently I was looking into the matter of salt (as one does). Salt is a mineral made mostly of sodium chloride, and in its crystalline state is also known as rock salt or halite. It is essential for life in general, is present in our oceans, and is one of our five basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty). As a spice, it is the oldest in the world; gathered along dried seashores from evaporated tidal pools, hunter-gatherers soon learned to value it. Even as far back as 6000 BC, intentional salt production (by boiling or evaporating seawater) was around. Since ancient times, it has been used as a seasoning, a preservative (whether air-drying in salt or through the brining process), a disinfectant, a unit of exchange, and ceremonial uses. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to disinfect them (see Ezekiel 16:4 as an example of this ancient practice).
The word brings quite a few things to mind, from culinary to military to spiritual: One speaks of seasoned soldiers – those who’ve seen action and have learned how to respond rightly in a crisis. Roman soldiers were given an allowance for the purchase of salt; it’s where we get the word salary (salarius – Latin, pertaining to salt), and worth one’s salt is thought to come from that concept of the Roman soldier’s payment. The phrase above salt, referring to someone high in rank or honour, came from the seating position that a person would be invited to take at a dinner party – the salt being placed in the middle of the long dining table; the more honoured a guest, the closer they sat to the host at the head of the table, above salt (used as far back as AD 1200 in that context).
Salt preserves and adds flavour by bringing out the full bouquet of flavour within the thing it’s added to. It enhances a sweet melon or a savoury slice of meat. Seasoned just right, even a lowly carrot or potato can become an explosion of taste. In Colossians 4:6, the apostle Paul uses this culinary metaphor: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Applying the qualities of salt to our speech, let it always be full of good taste, preserving the honour of those with and about whom we speak, bringing out their potential, enhancing them. Such speech is applicable in every situation; such a reply is never wrong. How we say something is at least as important as what we say; that’s the salt of the matter. Salt was also used by ancient armies to symbolically curse the fields of a conquered area (it is erroneously thought that the salt was sown to make the land unproductive, but it would take a prohibitive amount of salt to accomplish that, so it’s logically rather a symbolic than literal salting).
Salt also gives us several more idioms than those mentioned above:
- To take something with a grain of salt – from Modern Latin, cum grano salis. It means not to believe something at face value, or take something completely seriously.
- (To go) back to the salt mines – (To go) back to work
- To rub salt in (someone’s) wound – To make someone’s problem or bad situation worse
- Salt of the earth – a good, honest, upright person
- To salt (something) away – To save money or other item for another time or purpose
- Salty dog – An experienced sailor (nickname due to the salinity of the sea)
Today, most countries have a wide variety of salt available: The typical salt in western societies is called “table salt”, and it has been iodized with iodine since 1924, to correct the deficiency of iodine in the average diet. The deficiency can lead to thyroid problems in adults and cretinism in children. Another mineral sometimes added is fluoride, to prevent tooth decay. The additives vary from country to country, which may also add to the variety and regional differences in taste.
Sea Salt is just that – from the sea, including traces of algae, salt-resistant bacteria and also sediment impurities.
Bamboo Salt (Jukyeom) is prepared by roasting salt in a bamboo container plugged with mud at both ends; it absorbs minerals from the bamboo and the mud, which in turn adds a distinct flavour to the salt.
Celtic Sea Salt, also known as grey salt (from French, sel gris), is harvested by raking salt crystals off of the bottom of tidal pools along the coast of France. It’s got a distinctive briny flavour.
Fluer de Sel (Flower salt), is another tidal salt from France, but its crystals are paper-thin flakes taken from the water’s surface. Because of the labour-intensive harvesting, it’s known as the “caviar of salts” as it is the most expensive salt on the market (1 pound of salt can be $20). Any salt harvested from the water’s surface creates flakes, so there are less expensive varieties available.
Kosher, or kitchen, salt is coarse-grained and non-iodized and used for things like cooking or pretzel-making.
Pickling salt has a very fine grain to speed up the dissolving process in cooking or brining.
Gourmet salts often have other spices or elements added or infused into the salt grains.
Kala namak (Nepalese for black salt) is a Himalayan salt that’s been packed into a container with charcoal, herbs, seeds and bark, then fired in a furnace for a full day before it’s cooled, stored and aged. This process gives it a distinctive reddish-black colour, a pungent, salty taste and the faint sulphurous aroma of eggs, which lends vegan dishes the taste of egg.
Pink Himalayan Salt is rock salt mined in the Salt Range mountains of the Punjab region of Pakistan, and the colour comes from trace impurities found in the soil, ranging from transparent to beet-red. It is comparable to table salt in taste, though it lacks the health benefits of the latter. This salt is especially popular as it is erroneously purported to have special health benefits for everything from reducing ageing, clearing up sinus problems, to increasing bone strength and even more dangerous presumptions – a modern-day snake oil medicine. It is fine as a supplement to, but not a replacement of, our salt intake.
Hawaiian Black Lava Salt is a sea salt harvested from the volcanic islands of Hawaii, and it gets its deep, black colour from the additive of activated charcoal. Alaea Salt is an unrefined red Hawaiian salt; its colour comes from the reddish, iron-rich volcanic clay called alaea, and it adds a robust flavour.
Persian Blue Diamond Salt is extracted from salt mines in the Semman province of ancient Persia (now Iran). Mineral deposits add small flecks of blue to some of the crystals, giving it its name.
Smoked Salt is slow-smoked up to two weeks over a wood fire of hickory, mesquite, apple, oak or alder wood, and it adds a smoky flavour to dishes.
Cyprus Black Lava Salt comes from the Mediterranean Sea. These crystals are formed through natural evaporation; mixed with activated charcoal, the grains look like miniature pieces of charcoal and have a very mild salt flavour.
Red Wine Salt comes from France (where else?); I have one called Fleur de Merlot. It is a coarse-grained salt mixed with wine and then allowed to evaporate, infusing the salt grains with a dark red wine flavour. It goes well with robust flavours with which you might serve Merlot wine.
New Zealand Lake Grassmere Salt: Seawater from the deep is brought to seaside ponds surrounding Lake Grassmere in New Zealand, and at the end of the summer, salt crusts are lifted from the bottom of the ponds.
In some cultures, salt is not a staple condiment, replaced instead by high-sodium ingredients that fulfil the function of salt: Soy sauce, fish sauce, or oyster sauce, to name a few. I cook a variety of dishes, and all of these have their place in my kitchen; you can’t cook an authentic-tasting Asian meal without them.
There are probably thousands of types of salt in the world; each one has its own distinct colours and flavours due to the mineral deposits that seep into the water before or during the evaporation process, or because of additives such as wine, crushed tequila worms, rosebuds or herbs.
Because salt is used as a preservative, many processed foods include it. Over-consumption of salt can lead to health problems – just think of a salt-brined fish, and apply that principle to your organs to get an idea of what happens. I use processed foods sparingly – mainly things I cannot process myself, such as canned tuna. Be aware also of the amount of salt included in spice mixtures; it is hidden in most pre-made items (unless sugar is used as the preservative – but that’s another story). The best way to control your salt intake in a day is to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and make things like spice mixtures and batters from scratch – that way you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body!
The next time you reach for the salt, pause a moment and consider where it came from: It could be from the ocean or from a salt mine deep in the earth; it could be from a tidal pool bottom or top or the scum of a pond. It could have intentional additives or random mineral impurities that add to its flavour. Even the humble salt crystal, when seen under a microscope (below), takes on a grandeur that has the thumbprints of a grand Designer.
Did any of you celebrate Lammas Day this past Thursday, 1 August? The original Thanksgiving day, Lammas has a centuries-old tradition in some English-speaking countries. “Lammas” comes from the Old English hlafmæsse, meaning “loaf mass”, and was a celebration to give thanks for the harvest. Everyone would bring a loaf of bread to the church on that day, made from freshly-harvested wheat; it would then be blessed by the minister as a symbol of giving thanks for the entire harvest. Perhaps this is the Eucharistic overtone admitted by J.R.R. Tolkien* in a private letter concerning the Lembas Bread of the Elves; this bread might have been based on Hardtack texture-wise, but the name itself is a clear nod to Lammas.
In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, it’s mentioned several times, where it is referred to as the feast of the first fruits. To read more about this celebration, click on the image below.
And before I close, I will also say, “Happy Birthday, Switzerland!” Thursday was also our Founding Day, the first being in 1291. It was perfect weather for fireworks, and we enjoyed the displays of towns and villages from our flat!
*Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-31555-7
When in Lugano on holidays, we’ve gone occasionally to the Meride Fossil Museum, which houses fossils found in the Monte San Giorgio geological layers. High in the mountains, sea creatures’ fossils are found, which is an amazing fact when you realize that the nearest ocean is hundreds of kilometers away today, and the deposits are 480 metres above modern sea level. To visualize the information, I made a calligram of an ammonite; see if you can spot my name and date of creation in the image. Click on the picture to enlarge. Enjoy!
[As always, if you are interested in using this elsewhere, please ask my permission, and give credit where credit is due (i.e. link to my blog and all that…) Thank you!]
After our holidays in Lugano, mentioned in the last post, I went to Scotland with my husband for a five-day whirlwind visit with friends. Spending time together with them morning and evening, we took day trips out in between and were able to see astonishingly much in that short time!
One of the things we went to see was the Wallace Monument, near Stirling; we trekked up the steep, narrow spiral staircase to the top, stopping along the way at each of three levels before reaching the top (with a stunning view). One of the levels was called the “Hall of Heroes”: Filled with marble statues of Scottish scientists, politicians, shakers and makers of the past centuries, without exception, they were all men. Until this year. Two statues of women have been added, along with 6 pillars of women who were chosen by a panel of judges from among the long list of Scottish women who have been influential in Scottish history.
As the saying goes, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman”. Many of these women were ignored by history, which is more often than not written down by men, from a man’s perspective, for a man’s world. I’m not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination; but I do have a strong sense of justice, and I am a woman who has often been overlooked and marginalized by society, by prospective bosses, and by mentalities that belittle women solely based on gender. So I take pleasure when I see women from the past being acknowledged for the contributions they’ve made, and I take special pleasure in “undusting” their history for you here on my blog. With that said, here’s the first:
How many of you are familiar with Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Perhaps not the name, but certainly the distinctive art style he is known for:
He is frequently claimed as Scotland’s most influential and distinguished artist, yet he once reportedly said of his wife (whom he married on 22 August 1900), “Margaret has genius, I have only talent.” If you look at her own work, you see that she was the main inspiration behind his more simplistic designs; the famous “Mackintosh rose” is clearly seen in her works:
Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, born 5 November 1864, was part of what was known as the “Glasgow Four”, which included her sister Frances, Herbert MacNair, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and during her lifetime, she was recognized for her defining influence in the “Glasgow Art” style of the 1890s, during which period she and her sister opened an art studio together (the MacDonald Sisters Studio at 128 Hope Street, Glasgow) – at a time when women were still very much expected to get married and live a quiet life in submission to a husband. Though she was known and respected in her own lifetime, consequent generations have forgotten her genius; for instance, Charles was famous as an architect, yet in a letter to his wife he wrote, “Remember, you are half if not three-quarters in all my architectural work.” Her interior designs (often mixed mediums, including the use of gesso, beads, metal and textiles) made his buildings typically “Mackintosh”, yet there is not a single mention of her in an article about Mackintosh architecture on a website devoted to architectural design, though they had ample opportunity to give her deserved recognition.
Between 1895 and 1924, she contributed to more than forty European and American exhibitions. She exhibited with her husband at the 1900 Vienna Secession, where her work could arguably be described as an influence on the Secessionists Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, yet again, she is ignored posthumously.
Ill health decreased her artistic output from around 1921, and she passed away in 1933, five years after her husband’s death. Her artwork lives on, and I hope her legacy earns equal recognition with that of her husband’s as times change, and the women of history begin to receive the recognition they truly deserve.
For those of you unfamiliar with calligrams, they are images created out of spatially-arranged text, usually related to the image they create.
I began doing calligrams several years ago, and enjoy the “bite-sized” research involved in gathering facts, history and general information about a subject. The first one I made was probably a Viking ship or the wassail tree; the latter, I accidentally found being used as the back cover design of an art magazine online out of Romania; I asked them to attach my web address and credit the image to me, and they did so, but it taught me a valuable lesson: embed my name into the calligram!
Below is one that I did recently while on holiday in Lugano. You’ll hear more about that soon, but in the meantime, enjoy this calligram! Just click on it to enlarge it. The image itself is based on a vintage postcard collage.
If anyone would like to use this in any way, please contact me through the comments below; whenever using any image, please give credit – whenever possible – where credit is due!
My husband and I once discussed mustard (as one does). Specifically, he had been on Google Earth and mentioned that he saw rapeseed fields near Dijon; I replied that they were more likely to be mustard fields. He was under the impression that mustard was a bush, or a tree, and we wondered if there might be varieties of the plant that ranged in size, especially if left to grow wild. And thus, a bit of research into the mustard plant ensued (naturally).
First, a bit of history on Dijon mustard: Originating in 1856, the first Dijon mustard was made by substituting green (unripe) grape juice for the more typical vinegar, though today that unripe grape juice is a spade called a spade, white wine. Surprisingly, 90% of the mustard seed used in local Dijon production comes (mainly) from Canada – so those yellow flowering fields near Dijon could be rapeseed after all!
Dijon, France doesn’t just make the eponymous mustard, but has dozens of speciality mustards; when travelling through a few years ago, we picked up jars of orange mustard, fig mustard, lavender mustard and tomato mustard. They often come in hand-painted pots, though plain glass jars are common as well. The word mustard itself comes from Old French mostarde, which comes from Latin mustum, meaning “new wine”. This may also be related to a Swiss-German term Most, meaning apple juice that’s nearly fermented; it’s often sold in the autumn from farmer’s shops, if they have an apple orchard from which to produce it.
Mustard seeds come in white, brown or black. White seeds contain fewer volatile oils and so are milder than brown or black. Years ago I consulted a doctor for remedies I could recommend to singing students who often struggle with sore throat issues; she told me to have them put 1 teaspoon of dark mustard seeds into a hot foot bath and soak the feet for 10-15 minutes; the mustard oils draw out the infection.
Mustard, as a condiment, was likely first made in Rome, appearing in cookbooks as far back as the 4th or 5th centuries. They probably exported the seeds to France (Gaul), and by the 10th century monks were experimenting with recipes. Grey-Poupon was established in 1777 between the partners Maurice Grey and Auguste Poupon.
So were those French fields rapeseed or mustard? Well, actually, both: Rapeseed is a bright-yellow flowering member of the family Brassicaceae (mustard or cabbage family). While both rapeseed and mustard are harvested for their oils, they are as similar as mustard is to cabbage; rapeseed oil is the third-largest source of vegetable oil in the world, while mustard seeds are usually prepared as mustard condiment (though mustard oil is also popular in cuisines such as Indian).
Now we know!