If they’re ill, charge them extra

James Meek

  • Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
    Cape, 452 pp, £17.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 224 06084 8
  • Salt: Grain of Life by Pierre Laszlo, translated by Mary Beth Mader
    Columbia, 220 pp, £15.95, July 2001, ISBN 0 231 12198 9

In 1870, the Imperial authorities in London ordered a heraldic designer to come up with a flag and crest for a part of the British Empire called Turks and Caicos. The designer had never heard of the place, but he was sent a sketch by a local artist which showed a typical scene: men wielding long-handled instruments and, behind them, large white mounds. Public interest in Arctic exploration was high, and the designer gave the white mounds a prominent place in the finished crest, a panorama of igloos with doors which remained the emblem of Turks and Caicos until 1968. The people of the islands, which are in the Caribbean, were too shy or too polite ever to tell their Imperial masters that frost and snow were unknown to them, and that the white mounds were heaps of the only product that made money in Turks and Caicos: salt.

By the time the Turks and Caicos got their mad flag, most Victorians in the home country thought of salt, if they thought of it at all, as something cheap and easy to get hold of, as we do now, and had as little interest in where it came from. It wasn’t always like this. When the Romans arrived in Britain, they reported that the locals were so desperate for salt that they would pour sea water on hot charcoal and scrape off the crystals that were left on the charred wood. Now, the US alone produces forty million tonnes of salt a year. Only 8 per cent is for food. More than half is chucked on the roads in winter.

A very long time ago, salt was thought of as a wonderful substance that could fend off starvation by preserving food. At a household level, it was a central element of ritual, myth and hospitality. Yet, as the only commodity that was both precious and necessary, it was for thousands of years a talisman of all that is worst in human behaviour – enslavement, greed, war, the exploitation of the weak by the powerful, the reckless spending of our inheritance from nature.

The Imperial servant’s ignorance about what was going on in the Empire’s salt colony wasn’t entirely innocent. Turks and Caicos is still a British colony, but one of the islands, Salt Cay, is a post-salt desert dotted with iguanas, a monument to three hundred years of ruthless use that ended a few decades ago. The island’s trees were cut down for the salt works, and the land has dried up. Mark Kurlansky, who went there, describes meeting elderly salt veterans, Belongers, who recall that with wages of a shilling and sixpence a day for hard labour shifting salt sacks, and with no alternative employment, they might as well have been slaves.

It’s hard to say who rulers and capitalists have treated worse down the years: the people who have produced the salt, or the people who’ve been obliged to buy it. Even as Turks and Caicos was getting its flag, in another part of the Imperial forest, in India, the British were perfecting a network of regulations and enforcers designed to give British-manufactured salt a competitive edge over locally produced salt by entirely foul means.

For thousands of years before the British came, India had been well supplied with salt from the salt marshes of Gujarat on the west coast and the salt flats of Orissa to the east. In order to destroy this competition to their more expensive salt, produced in Cheshire (a family of Cheshire saltmakers was one of the founders of the Turks and Caicos industry), Britain first tried to buy up all the salt that came out of Orissa, then issued a decree banning its sale in Bengal; then, in 1803, annexed Orissa by force. At that point they nationalised salt production – previously a trade of peasants, or malangis – banned its private sale, banned its transport, and winkled out private salt stocks. By 1814, it was illegal for anyone except the British Government to make salt in Orissa. In order to stop salt smuggling, a 2500-mile hedge of thorns, 14 feet high and 12 feet thick, was planted, stretching from Orissa to the Himalayas and known as the Customs Line. In 1836, under pressure from British saltmakers, the Government bumped up the duty on Orissa salt, making it uncompetitive with the imported (i.e. British) version. The authorities scaled back production of Orissa salt and, in 1863, ordered it to be shut down altogether. Famine, and a salt shortage, followed in Bengal. Surveying the death and poverty which their policies had brought, the British opened a plant to make cheap local salt, but it was too successful, and the Cheshire lobby forced its closure. ‘Once the plant was closed down,’ Kurlansky writes, ‘the malangis starved, while salt, their traditional cash crop, was lying at their feet in sparkling crusts, waiting to be picked up and sold. But even scraping salt off the surface of the flats was a severely punishable offence.’ It was on a beach in Gujarat, in 1930, that Gandhi, invoking a long tradition of anti-British salt revolts in Orissa, publicly defied the British Government by picking up a chunk of naturally-deposited salt crust, breaking the salt laws and beginning the journey to Indian Independence.

Cheshire, too, experienced the dark side of salt. Barely regulated entrepreneurs, boiling brine to get salt, razed the forests, scarred fields with chemical residue and covered the countryside with squat chimneys that filled the air with a thick, dark smog. For more than three centuries, sucking natural brine out of underground rock-salt deposits caused the ground to cave in unpredictably: in Northwich, by 1880, four hundred buildings had been destroyed or damaged. It was in keeping with the spirit of the times – or our sense of them – that the black-clothed figure of a preacher could sometimes be made out in the smog, standing on the rim of a crater where a home had stood, sermonising on eternal damnation.

Ruthlessness in pursuit of salt was not confined to the Old World. In the early years of the United States, the country’s new rulers, desperate for indigenous salt, browbeat the Iroquois-speaking Onondaga Indians of New York State into handing over their brine-rich land in exchange for 150 bushels of salt a year. It wasn’t just that this was very little salt; the Onondaga had no use for it. They can’t get their land back, but they still get the salt; they use it to make sauerkraut, which they sell back to their colonisers. With the Indians out of the picture, the new Americans could get on with making salt, making money and despoiling the environment. First they cut down and burned all the surrounding wood to boil brine; then they shipped in coal, until that became too expensive; then they used solar evaporation, until their salt was finally priced out of the market and the industry died, leaving Lake Onondaga so polluted with calcium carbonate and mercury that it would take, Pierre Laszlo reports, an estimated $600 million to clean up.

Of all the iniquities associated with humanity’s need for salt and greed for money, and many more are discussed in these nuggetty books, the French salt tax, the gabelle – not completely done away with until 1946 – stands out. To wring tax out of the population, the Crown decreed that everyone in Northern France over the age of eight had to buy seven kilos of salt a year. This was more than anyone could use, unless they used it for preserving food, which they weren’t allowed to do – for that, they had to buy extra salt. Besides being heavier for each successive generation, the tax became wildly unequal. Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s revision of the gabelle in 1680 split the country into six, with each region paying a different duty. On the north bank of the River Loire, at one stage, it was possible to buy a minot of salt (49 kilos) for only 31 sous; on the south bank, the same amount cost 591 sous. Not surprisingly, smuggling was rife. Customs officers were forced to bring in the troops, who were hated, and fought against, as bitterly as an army of occupation. In the years leading up to the Revolution more than three thousand French men, women and children were sentenced to prison or death each year for violation of the salt laws. Laszlo draws a comparison between the gabelle and today’s European duties on petrol, but the stakes were higher in the 18th century. On 25 July 1785 one J. Fournié was ordered by gabelle magistrates in Villefranche-de-Rouergue to pay a 200 livre fine for salt infringements. Because he couldn’t afford it, he was sentenced to be stripped to the waist, led through the town, flogged in public, branded with a red hot iron, and ordered to spend the rest of his life on board a convict ship.

Matthias Jakob Schleiden, a 19th-century German botanist, believed that the imposition of salt taxes was a sure sign of despotism. It was an issue that had troubled and fascinated thinkers at least since 300 BC, when a Chinese minister suggested a revenue-raising salt monopoly to the ruler of the state of Qi. In some parts of the kingdom there was such a shortage of salt that it was making people ill, he said. These people could be charged extra.

The idea found favour and eventually became the policy of the emergent Empire of China. The money raised from the salt monopoly, along with that from a similar iron monopoly, paid for the Great Wall. Generations later, roughly 2100 years ago, the Emperor Zhaodi convened a conference of experts to debate the wisdom of the popularly loathed monopolies. A version of the deliberations, the ‘Discourse on Salt and Iron’, has been preserved. The argument hinged on the question of what limits there should be to what rulers may do to their people in the name of the national interest. The legalist faction argued that profits from the salt and iron duties were essential to the state’s survival against its external enemies. The Confucian faction replied that wise, benign rule and moral conduct were the best and only guarantors of defence. Kurlansky quotes Mencius, the author of one of the central Confucian texts, on state profits:

Why must Your Majesty use the word profit? All I am concerned with are the good and the right. If Your Majesty says, ‘How can I profit my state?’ your officials will say, ‘How can I profit my family?’ and officers and common people will say: ‘How can I profit myself?’ Once superiors and inferiors are competing for profit, the state will be in danger.

I haven’t read Kurlansky’s earlier hit, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, or his Basque History of the World, but after reading Salt: A World History, I feel as if I have. There’s a little more about cod and the Basques in Salt than pure aficionados of what Kurlansky calls ‘the only family of rocks eaten by humans’ need to know. Kurlansky works with a rolling repertory company of facts. Some of those from each previous production are going to pop up in the next. Cod’s an important fish. The Basques caught a lot of cod. To store their cod the Basques needed a hell of a lot of salt, and so on. Readers can entertain themselves on the side by trying to work out which of Kurlansky’s numerous digressions into unsalted matters is going to flower into his next book. His digressions, however, are neat cul-de-sacs compared to those of Pierre Laszlo, who wants to draw the reader deep into the anarchic maze of his erudition, forever branching and rebranching.

Both authors offer a rich pickle barrel of facts and anecdotes about salt. Kurlansky refers in his acknowledgments to the New York Public Library and the more than a thousand books on salt in its vaults. Laszlo seems to have trawled the same sources, and then some, and, curiously, the books share many of the same illustrations. Hopping between times, cultures and disciplines, the Salts share a tendency to dissolve in the sheer diffuseness of their subject matter, but it is possible to trace the same two essential themes. There is the greed. And there is the need.

Without common salt – sodium chloride – we’d die. The chlorine is important, but the sodium is essential to the way life operates on a microsecond by microsecond, cell by cell scale. When we think, we think with sodium ions and potassium ions shuffling to make the electrical charges required for nerve impulses. Hence the animal craving for salt. One species of moth builds up the salt it needs to mate by spending up to three hours at a time drinking from puddles of water, storing the tiny amounts of sodium, and ejecting a fifty-centimetre squirt of urine every few seconds. Our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors, if there was enough meat and fish in their diet, got the salt they needed from that. Once humankind settled, domesticated animals and began to grow crops, they realised they had to provide salt in its pure form for their beasts, for themselves, and to preserve food to tide them through times of famine (which would include the average winter). Hence pickles, sausages, salt fish, hams, cheese, sauces – hence, in fact, much of what is wonderful in food.

There are ironies in this, as Kurlansky points out. These foods, once essential to prevent the everyday menace of starvation, are now, in the era of refrigeration, delicacies. Where once there was a superabundance of fish and salt was precious, now salt is plentiful and fish are scarce. The instinctive sense of salt’s lifegiving role has faded. Once it was seen in mystical, metaphysical terms. Salt had the same quality as fire: it transformed. But whereas fire made the lasting transient, salt made the transient lasting. As a symbol of permanence – not only does it preserve, but it can be dissolved and crystallised in and out of water indefinitely – it sealed covenants between ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Hebrews and their gods. Salt is still a part of Jewish ritual. In Wales, it used to be traditional when someone died to place bread and salt on the coffin and call in a professional sin-eater to eat the salt. In Sweden, girls of marriageable age would be given heavily salted dream food – dream porridge or a dream pancake – and sent off to bed without a drink, in the expectation that they would be offered water in their dreams by their future husbands.

There was, on occasion, a more direct link between salt and the spirit world. Human beings could be pickled after death. In 1670, France ordered that people who committed suicide be salted and put on display as a warning to the living. The mummies of ancient Egypt were, essentially, salted people, albeit preserved with natron, a different kind of sodium salt. In the 19th century, when archaeologists began excavating Egyptian tombs and shipping out their contents, mummies were taxed as salted fish before the authorities allowed them to enter Cairo. The ancient Egyptians knew their salt. Haunted by the threat of famine on their marginal Nile lands, they were prepared to domesticate, slaughter and pickle just about anything, apart from religiously forbidden pigs. They even tried to farm hyenas, unsuccessfully, but did manage to domesticate and salt down geese, quail, pigeon, duck and pelican. They salted the dried mullet roe that has recently been a minor craze in London restaurants. They discovered how to use salt to make olives edible, and sprinkled their food with oxalme, a mixture of brine and vinegar. They left behind what sounds like the world’s first advertising slogan, inscribed on papyrus: ‘There is no better food than salted vegetables.’

The average adult human being should contain enough salt to fill two or three salt shakers. Human ingenuity has come up with a million more interesting ways to get it there than merely sprinkling white crystals over starch. Most people see salt as a seasoning. Kurlansky sees different kinds of food as elaborate vehicles for the transmission of salt into the body. Brits sprinkle salt on chips. The ancient Egyptians used oxalme. The Chinese use salty soy sauce. The Vietnamese use salty fish sauce, as did the Romans – garum, poised on a knife-edge between pungent and putrid. I had intended to make one of the recipes Kurlansky scatters through his book and report back, but they all defeated me. I was almost ready to mix salt cod with apples, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, caraway, currants, raisins, rose water, minced lemon peel, sugar, dates, white wine and butter, and bake the mixture in a pie crust, but I balked at the final instruction from the 17th-century Robert May to ice the pies. The 13th-century recipe for craspoix is disarmingly simple, but demands salted whale meat. A Roman recipe begins: ‘Pluck the flamingo.’ The recipe for huiguorou is a characteristic Sichuan example of cooking with multiple salty ingredients instead of salt, but the cupboard was bare of douban (hot, salty dried bean paste), zhacai (salted vegetables) and dousi (salted yellow bean paste). Not that this last idea is alien to modern European cooking. The original River Café Cookbook’s recipe for penne with tomato and anchovy sauce contains not only sea salt to season the water in which the pasta is boiled but salted anchovies and a wodge of Parmesan. Salted wheat, salted fish and salted milk: our instinctive craving for the edible rock satisfied, and the edible rock preserving the foodstuffs it has protected for thousands of years. I’m glad my salt, anchovies and Parmesan come without salt duty. I’m glad to report that the rock in penne form is very good indeed.