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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: Salt - A World History

I read Salt while touring across Bavaria, and it was a surprisingly appropriate read! The book covers the history of Salt's importance, of how roman soldiers used to get paid in salt, and the history of various forms of salt existed throughout human history and the role of salt in preserving food.
It was said that in the markets to the south of Taghaza salt was exchanged for its weight in gold, which was an exaggeration. The misconception comes from the West African style of silent barter noted by Herodotus and subsequently by many other Europeans. In the gold-producing regions of West Africa, a pile of gold would be set out, and a salt merchant would counter with a pile of salt, each side altering their piles until an agreement was reached. No words were exchanged during this process, which might take days. The salt merchants often arrived at night to adjust their piles and leave unseen. They were extremely secretive, not wanting to reveal the location of their deposits. From this it was reported in Europe that salt was exchanged in Africa for its weight in gold. But it is probable that the final agreed-upon two piles were never of equal weight. (Kindle Loc 650)
The Italian mainland was originally much farther away from the islands that are now the city of Venice. The area between these islands and the peninsula of Comacchio was called the Seven Seas. “To sail the seven seas” meant simply sailing the Seven Seas—accomplishing the daunting task of navigating past the sandbars of those treacherous twenty-five miles. About A.D. 600, Venetians started using landfill to extend the mainland closer to the islands of modern-day Venice. The Seven Seas became a landmass with a port named Chioggia. Below it, in a now much-narrowed lagoon, was Comacchio, overlooking the delta of the Po. Ravenna, formerly a port, became an inland city, and nearby Cervia became its port. (Kindle loc 1070)
 Another example: I didn't know that Ketchup came from Indonesia:
Ketchup derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan. The names of several other Indonesian sauces also include the word kecap, pronounced KETCHUP, which means a base of dark, thick soy sauce. Why would English garum have an Indonesian name? Because the English, starting with the medieval spice trade, looked to Asia for seasoning. Many English condiments, even Worcestershire sauce, invented in the 1840s, are based on Asian ideas...The salt in ketchup originally came from salt-cured fish, and most early anchovy ketchup recipes, such as Eliza Smith’s, do not even list salt as an ingredient because it is part of the anchovies. But the English and Americans began to move away from having fish in their ketchup. It became a mushroom sauce, a walnut sauce, or even a salted lemon sauce. These ketchups originally included salt anchovies, but as Anglo-Saxon cooking lost its boldness, cooks began to see the presence of fish as a strong flavor limiting the usefulness of the condiment. Roman cooks would have been appalled by the lack of temerity, but Margaret Dods adds at the end of her walnut ketchup recipe: Anchovies, garlic, cayenne, etc. are sometimes put to this catsup; but we think this is a bad method, as these flavours may render it unsuitable for some dishes, and they can be added extempore when required.—Margaret Dods, Cook and Housewife’s Manual, London, 1829 Ketchup became a tomato sauce, originally called “tomato ketchup” in America, which is appropriate since the tomato is an American plant, brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, embraced in the Mediterranean, and regarded with great suspicion in the North. (Kindle loc 2344)
 It covers MSG, the history of salted fish, and the modern use of "natural salt", which ironically has more dirt and doesn't have iodine, which is actually an important mineral that many do not get enough of:
The salt in ketchup originally came from salt-cured fish, and most early anchovy ketchup recipes, such as Eliza Smith’s, do not even list salt as an ingredient because it is part of the anchovies. But the English and Americans began to move away from having fish in their ketchup. It became a mushroom sauce, a walnut sauce, or even a salted lemon sauce. These ketchups originally included salt anchovies, but as Anglo-Saxon cooking lost its boldness, cooks began to see the presence of fish as a strong flavor limiting the usefulness of the condiment. Roman cooks would have been appalled by the lack of temerity, but Margaret Dods adds at the end of her walnut ketchup recipe: Anchovies, garlic, cayenne, etc. are sometimes put to this catsup; but we think this is a bad method, as these flavours may render it unsuitable for some dishes, and they can be added extempore when required.—Margaret Dods, Cook and Housewife’s Manual, London, 1829 Ketchup became a tomato sauce, originally called “tomato ketchup” in America, which is appropriate since the tomato is an American plant, brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, embraced in the Mediterranean, and regarded with great suspicion in the North. (Kindle Loc 5437)
There's a lot more in this big book, including coverage of the salt mines in Salzburg (the name means "salt city!"), and how much of lower Bavaria was important because of the presence of the salt mines. It even put the mining exhibit and the salt mine visits that we made during the tour into perspective. The book can be a bit repetitive and a bit of a chore at times to read, but I was very happy to have read it when I read it.

Recommended.

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