Tag Archives: History

The Salt of the Matter

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.

Salts

The variety of salts found in my own kitchen

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.

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History Undusted: Lammas Day

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!

Breads, Harvest, Lammas Day

*Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-31555-7

 

 

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History Undusted: A Grain of Mustard

MustardMy 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 specialityDijon Hand-Painted Jar 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!

Originally posted on History Undusted, 17

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History Undusted: The Wild Women of the Old West

Often unsung heroines, the women who trailblazed (alongside their husbands, or on their own through the loss of said man along the trail, or who headed west on their own to forge a new way of living) were the backbone of settlements.  Without the women, there would have been no way for a man to survive for long.  I grew up in Kansas, and my father’s ancestors were immigrants from Denmark who travelled west to Kansas in covered wagons in the 1880s; the farm which my great grandfather built was eventually inherited by my grandfather, and many of my happy childhood memories are associated with that farmstead.  Looking back through family photos, there’s not a photo of a weak woman among them; weak women (and men, for that matter) simply didn’t survive the trail.  They became the strength that built the West.

For a 46-minute documentary on the importance of the pioneer woman, and the legends that grew up around the likes of Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Belle Starr, please click on the image below.  It’s well worth the time to watch, when you have a moment!

 

Annie Oakley

 

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History Undusted: Mary Seacole

Have you ever heard of Mary Seacole? Probably not – I hadn’t, and I’m a history fan. Have you ever heard of Florence Nightingale? You probably had something taught to you in school about her.  In reading about the two, the most striking difference, and perhaps the one that made all the difference in the paths their lives took, was that Florence was born into a rich, upper-class and well-connected English family; Mary was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican woman, who first taught her about medicine.

mary seacole

 

Mary Seacole. Source: Wikipedia

 

While Florence was famous for training nurses during the Crimean War, the English authorities refused Mary’s request to be sent there, too, even though it was known that the nursing care was far too inadequate; so she scraped the money together herself, travelled to the front lines on her own, and established a hotel in order to provide meals, a place of rest, and medical treatment for the wounded. She would often go out to the battles to bring in the wounded, and as mortars flew past, a soldier would shout, “Down, mother!” and she would hit the dirt, then pick herself back up and continue on. To tell her whole story would be a lengthy one here, but she has told it in her own words by writing a book: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, available for free as a Kindle or other formats here. You can also read more about Mary herself in the following links:

 

Wikipedia

BBC

YouTube

Her story is well worth reading, because it truly was an adventure, and it neither started nor stopped in Crimea. Kudos to the woman who overcame a triple-prejudice (being a woman of mixed race from a poor background) to achieve her calling and change the lives of the men she helped. It’s a history gem worth undusting!

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History Undusted: New Year’s Day

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year VintageOn such a day more than any other time of the year, one tends to think of time. Time has been personified through Father Time for centuries, with the New Year usually being a baby. But what we assume is a universal start of a new year actually isn’t. By the Julian calendar, today is 19 December 2018; by the Gregorian, 1 January 2019.

Perhaps it would help to review the Julian and the Gregorian calendars:

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a reformation of the Roman calendar, which had months of 29 or 31 days (except February, which must have confused even the contemporaries of the system – it had 28 days or 23 or 24 some years). The Julian calendar has been gradually increasing in discrepancy to the Gregorian calendar, which means that currently, it is 13 days behind. It is still used today by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and the North African Berbers.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The corrections spaced leap years to a set rule, making the average year 365.2425 days long. The rule is that every year exactly divisible by 4 is a leap year except those exactly divisible by 100; of the years divisible by 100, if it is exactly divisible by 400, it is a leap year. For example, the year 2000 was exactly divisible by 400, so it was a leap year; 1900 was not, so it wasn’t a leap year (it is exactly divisible by 100 but not 400).

Even though the Gregorian calendar is the only one most westerners have grown up using, it is not the only calendar in use – not by a long shot. There are many religion-related calendars, so some people grow up with 2 calendars (Ethiopian Coptics, Hebrews, and Chinese, to name a few). Added to the confusion is the civil interpretation of the leap year day of 29 February: If you were born on 29 February, in China your birthday in common years would be 28 February but in Hong Kong, it would be 1 March.

When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, imagine the confusion it must have led to (as it was not implemented everywhere at once): Pope Gregory XIII had no authority beyond the Catholic Church and the Papal States of the time, yet he was proposing changes to the civil calendar; this required adoption by the governing rulers of every individual country to have legal effect. It meant that, for the countries which adopted it, they had to have dual dates for clarity with neighbouring states and for their own people who were still adjusting to the fact that they’d just lost nearly 2 weeks. Other countries made a gradual transition, which must have confused things even more; for instance, Scotland adopted 1 January as the beginning of their New Year (previously, around 25 March) in 1600 (making 1599 a very short year), but didn’t switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, whereas the rest of the United Kingdom made both switches in 1752, meaning that for 152 years, Scotland’s dates were out of sync with their neighbouring countries.

So the next time you wish someone a Happy New Year, remember the privilege of sharing a mutual understanding of the same date with that friend. Even in our global village, it’s not something we can take for granted!

New Year 2019

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History Undusted: Agafia Lykov – Surviving in the Taiga

Agafia Lykov - Siberian Times

Agafia Lykov. Photo credit: Siberian Times

I recently came across a documentary about a woman, Agafia Lykov. I’d come across information about her family years ago, and had intended to write an article about them;  life happened, and I forgot about it, so I’m glad to do it now.

 

The Lykov family were part of what is known as the “Old Believers” – Eastern Orthodox Christians from Russia who refused to submit to the new regulations laid out by the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, between 1652 and 1666. At a time when religious affiliation was political power, they were viewed as a threat and were shunned and persecuted. In 1936,  Karp Lykov’s brother was killed by communists during Stalin’s religious purgings, and he fled with his wife and two children into the Taiga wilderness, an inhospitable region of Siberia. In this isolation, 250 km (160 miles) from the nearest settlement, two more children were born; Agafia was born in 1944.

The family was a living time capsule; they weren’t aware that World War 2 had come and gone; they missed the birth of the Space Age, though they knew that something had taken place when rocket chunks began raining down in the Taiga near their home, as they are under the flight path of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (if you have Google Earth, just search for her name; her homestead is marked). Survival was difficult, and they had to work constantly; in 1961, the mother, Akulina, starved herself to death in order to give the children a fighting chance of survival when food was scarce. At one point, they were forced to eat their leather shoes to survive. Agafia’s teeth have been worn down from eating such tough foods.

In 1978, they were discovered by accident when a geology team’s helicopter was searching for a place to land in the remote wilderness; they saw the homestead and decided to trek to it when they’d finally landed. Most likely as a result of contact with outsiders, in 1981, three of the four children died of pneumonia. At first, the geologists thought the children were mentally disabled, as they spoke a strange lilting and chirping language; but they soon realized that it was simply the isolation and family dialect that had developed a shorthand between themselves; Agafia actually speaks two languages: Russian and Old Slavic, which modern Russians cannot understand (it would be the same for English speakers to hear Old English; it’s related, but unrecognizable to its modern version).

Born into such isolation and alone since 1988, Agafia is surprisingly informed about the wider world; she has left her homestead for populated areas only six times since contact with the outside world began, but she prefers her home – the world is too busy for her, too many cars, bad air in the cities, and no peace. Her beliefs are also a time capsule; she only knows what her father taught her, and has had no teaching beyond that; her prayer book is over 400 years old, a family heirloom, and one she uses every day.

In January 2016, she was airlifted to a hospital in Tashtagol, Russia, due to pain in her legs caused by the cold. Before the end of the month, she had returned home – all the time she was away, she was worried about her goats and chickens, and about Georgy, and Old Believer who had come to live with her to help in her old age.

I find her life fascinating; she is an example of the unquenchable human tenacity to survive, and thrive in any environment; she is content with her simple life, as hard as it is, because it is what she knows; she knows of modern conveniences, and has accepted some things – learning how to make bread, or accepting supplies such as salt and flour (as long as the products don’t have barcodes on them, which she considers a “mark of the beast”); but for the most part, she wants nothing of the modern world.

To watch a 35-minute documentary (made in 2013) of her daily life, just click on the image below.

Agafia Lykov - Titlovi-com

 

 

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On the Tracks of History

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

traintracks

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History Undusted: The Shilling

1 Shilling front

Numismatics is an interesting field, and in doing research for the Northing Trilogy, I wanted to know just what currencies would have been used at the time (1750s, England), and what the value of the currencies were:  How much could be purchased or earned?  Would a Stirling pound have made a pauper a land owner or not?  That brought me to the current book I’m reading, called “The Splendid Shilling” by James O’Donald Mays.  Here are a few bits and bobs:

The Shilling was a form of currency used in Britain up until the 1970s; even after that, the coins continued in circulation as smaller denominations (1 shilling was 5 p, and 2 shilling was 10p) until 1990, when it was demonetized.  I remember using them until they were phased out and replaced by the smaller coins of 5p and 10p values, and I kept a few for my coin collection.  One shilling coins were called “bobs”, and that led to programs such as “bob-a-job” fund raisers by the boyscouts, starting in 1914.  Two shillings were known as Florins, or “two-bob bits”.

1 Shillings reverseThe word shilling most likely comes from a Teutonic word, skel, to resound or ring, or from skel (also skil), meaning to divide.  The Anglo-Saxon poem “Widsith” tells us …”þær me Gotena cyninggodedohte; se me beag forgeaf, burgwarenafruma, on þam siexhund wæs smætes goldes, gescyred sceatta scillingrime...”  “There the king of the Goths granted me treasure: the king of the city gave me a torc made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence.”  Another translation says that the gold was an armlet, “scored” and reckoned in shilling.  The “scoring” may refer to an ancient payment method also known as “hack” – they would literally hack off a chunk of silver or gold jewellery to purchase goods, services and land, and the scoring may have been pre-scored gold to make it easier to break in even increments, or “divisions”.  From at least the times of the Saxons, shilling was an accounting term, a “benchmark” value to calculate the values of goods, livestock and property, but did not actually become a coin until the reign of Henry VII in the 1500s, then known as a testoon.  The testoon’s name and design were most likely inspired by the Duke of Milan’s testone.

 

Duke of Milan's Testone

Duke of Milan’s Testone

 

 

Henry VII Testoon

Henry VII Testoon

 

 

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 15

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The Art of Diatom Microscopy

 

John Quekett.jpg

John Quekett

Recently, I came across an interesting piece of history:  During the Victorian Age, people were fascinated with nature, excursions, and technology.  Microscopes were becoming accessible to the rising middle classes of England, and one man, John Quekett, was fascinated by both microscopes and phytoplankton. He wrote a book called Practical Treastise on the Use of the Microscope, which was a hit among the Victorians, and they began discovering a hidden world of tiny creatures known as plankton and diatoms.

 

Plankton is what makes the ocean waters green, or aqua-blue – the differences are not only the sand or rock colour of a particular region, but also the density of microscopic life in the water. The denser the population, the lower the visibility. A teaspoon of seawater can contain a million living creatures. Regardless of their size, they underpin the marine foodchain, and indeed, all life on earth: Diatoms, which is the most common type of plankton, number in the trillions (there are over 100,000 known species to date), produce more than 20% of all oxygen on earth, and contribute nearly half of the organic life in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can cover the ocean bed as deep as half a mile in places, and they fertilize the Amazon basin to a tune of 27 million tons annually.

The Victorians knew very little of all that; they were at the dawn of discovery, and modern sciences owe a lot to those early intrepid explorers – women and men who braved the weather, cliffs and oceans in (heavy skirts and) leather shoes to discover, explore, and appreciate nature.  Not only did they discover it, but they began making beautiful arrangements from the various shapes – they would display their microscopic artwork to friends, much like we might look through someone’s holiday photos today.  These were known as Rosette Slides, and there is still one famous artist keeping this art form alive today: Klaus Kemp, known as the Diatomist. Here are just a few of his masterpieces; to see more, just google his name. The two links in this article will take you to two short videos on the topic.  Enjoy!

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