Whether you put it on your fish and chips or eat it in your bread and butter, salt makes food more tasty.
Humans need salt to survive but it is also something our bodies crave. It became common in our diets 5-10,000 years ago with the use of salt as a preservative. Until refrigeration and canning, the main way to keep food edible for longer was salting, pickling and adding to everyday basics like meat, cheese and bread.
Today, we take it for granted that salt is cheap and readily available. But historically it has been a scarce commodity requiring people to use their ingenuity to find it. In Cheshire, brine was boiled from natural brine pools – but this depended on the presence of an underground salt bed and engineering expertise. Using the sun to evaporate seawater requires time, patience and the right climate.
The obvious solution was to mine salt but discovering its whereabouts, before geology, was a ‘hit and miss’ process for most of history. Even when salt below ground was located, it was difficult and dangerous to extract before the invention of modern machinery.
Humans crave salty food.
A Neolithic cave painting from Bulgaria. Evidence indicates that Neolithic people were boiling brine from seawater as long ago as 6050 BC.
A solar salt farm at Ston in Croatia.
The body cannot live without some sodium, principally found in salt (sodium chloride or NaCl).
Without it, there is a breakdown in the transmission of nerve impulses and the body cannot sweat and maintain a proper balance of fluids in the body. Without salt, muscles cannot properly contract and relax, leading to crippling cramp and dizziness. In short, without sufficient levels of salt, people cannot function healthily.
If you browse a gourmet food shop for salt, you will be dazzled by what’s on offer – Himalayan pink salt, Hawaiian black salt, fleur de sel (hand-harvested French solar sea salt), not to mention innovations such as smoked salts. All have slightly different tastes but all consist primarily of sodium chloride, that in its natural form is a crystalline mineral, known as halite.
Without salt, your body can’t sweat to help maintain a proper balance of fluids.
Salt in its natural form is known as halite. The halite from Cheshire is a distinctive pink colour (top left).
Black, pink and white salt.
Although each day we lose a little salt in urine and sweat, most of us require very little salt to stay healthy.
According to the World Health Organisation, adults should eat no more than 6g of salt per day (2.4g sodium) – around one teaspoonful. The maximum amount of salt children should have depends on their age: For one to three-year-olds – 2g salt a day (0.8g sodium) and for four to six-year-olds – 3g salt a day (1.2g sodium).
Even without adding salt to our food, many of us obtain the necessary salt we require in everyday and processed foods. In excess, consuming high levels of salt causes harmfully high blood pressure.
People who live in hot climates or do a lot of physical labour need more salt to replace salts lost in sweating.
At the Lion Salt Works and at salt-making businesses across Cheshire, salt workers routinely drank beer with a pinch of salt.
Sir Humphry Davy, the man who discovered sodium in 1809.
It is thought that cattle were domesticated from wild ox in the Middle East about 10,500 years ago. This was a game-changer for early man. Tribes no longer had to hunt wild animals and had a fresh source of meat and milk. But eventually it also led to a pressing need to find salt. Like humans, cattle cannot survive without salt either.
Possibly out of the need to find salt for cattle, mankind also stumbled upon the survival-enhancing discovery that salt was good at preserving fish, fresh meat and other foodstuffs.
Salted fish was certainly traded by the Egyptians from about 2800BC. Rather than trade bulky salt they ‘added value’ to fish, a plentifully-available perishable commodity, and launched the salted food trade. This became a worldwide trade that would be an economic powerhouse for millennia. Through the centuries, people have pickled vegetables in brine, made pork into ham, salted fish and used it to help preserve meat and dairy products (in the form of cheese and butter).
Egyptians were buried with salt and we know from Egyptian tombs that salted fish and birds were important foodstuffs.
Many recipes include a pinch of salt to enhance the flavour of the other ingredients.
Thanks to their fondness for putting salt on their greens and paying their soldiers partly with salt, we have the Romans to thank for the words “salary” and “salad” - both derived from the word salt.
World leaders have always understood the importance of salt. Without it soldiers cannot sweat nor do they have supplies of preserved food on long route marches.
Queen Elizabeth I recognised that England was dangerously reliant on French salt, putting the country at a strategic disadvantage during European wars. In the American Civil War (1861-5), the lack of salt forced the Southern Confederate States to import Cheshire salt (known then as ‘Liverpool Salt’) to supply their soldiers with eating salt and vital preserved rations.
Through the centuries, salt cod and corned beef were staple foods for soldiers and sailors, when fresh meat was rationed. Corned beef is salt-cured brisket and is so-called because the meat was treated with large-grained rock salt, also known as ‘corns’ of salt. Corned beef or ‘bully beef’ was one of the main food rations for the British Army from the Boer War to WWII, only being phased out as field rations in 2009.
Today, around 80% of the global canned corned beef supply originates from Brazil.
During the American Civil War, the North produced 6 times more salt that the South, leaving a serious salt shortage. Salt was not only needed as a salt ration and for preserving foods but also for salt licks for cavalry horse and as a disinfectant for minor wounds.
On 18th March 1915 Harold Chapin wrote to his mother: "We are fed on Bully Beef (ordinary Fray Bentos, you know the brand) and lovely hard biscuits which I adore. Last night I added to my menu a bloater and some bread and marmalade, duff and coffee".
Corned beef hash.
Corned beef was a popular meal for soldiers of the United States through numerous wars, including both World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Salt has long played an important role in world religions and in the foods we eat.
In medieval times, the Catholic Church banned the eating of meat on religious days and eventually almost half the days became ‘lean’. In England, with hanging being the penalty for eating meat on Friday, people grew used to eating salted fish, including whale. Salted whale tongue was a great delicacy for the rich while the poor often made do with whale blubber.
Salt is very important in Judaism as a symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel. ‘It is a covenant of salt forever, before the Lord.’ (Book of Numbers). For this reason, every Friday Jews dip the Sabbath bread in salt, and salt plays a key part in other religious days.
An auspicious substance in Hinduism, salt is used in religious ceremonies like weddings and housewarmings. To show their devotion, Jains lay offerings of rice with a pinch of salt.
A whale carcass being cut up
In the Jewish faith, people dip bread in salt every Friday as part of the ritual of observing the Sabbath.
Jains at a religious ceremony. To show their devotion they offer rice with a pinch of salt.
The importance of salt made it one of the world’s first tradable commodities. For instance, in Ancient West Africa, salt from the Sahara Desert, carried by camels, was often traded for gold and in some places used as currency.
Over time, the importance of salt did not diminish. The expression ‘Below the Salt’ - meaning common or of low standing - helps us understand how it was used to define social status in medieval England. At this time, food was often eaten communally and arranged on long trestle tables. Those of highest rank ate at the top of the table with the salt placed near them with the servants placed ‘below the salt’. In medieval times, the etiquette for taking salt was always to use the tip of one’s knife, never one’s fingers.
Camels carrying salt in Africa's Danakil Desert, Ethiopia.
Salt cellars became increasingly important during the Middle Ages as grand centrepieces. The most famous was made by Italian Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini in 1543 for Francis I and was made of gold, enamel and ebony.
Why does a margarita taste so good with salt and lime? Why do sweet recipes often call for a pinch of salt?
Your tongue is an extraordinary and complicated part of your body. Containing between 2,000 and 5,000 taste buds, the tongue is sensitive to five basic tastes – salt, sweet, sour, bitter and savoury (umami). Latest research shows that the individual cells of taste buds respond to several tastes at different levels of sensitivity – sometimes enhancing, sometimes suppressing tastes.
As one of the five basic tastes, salt is a key player in influencing our enjoyment of foods. At low concentrations it reduces bitterness but increases sweet and sour tastes, making a pinch of salt good in sweet recipes. However, in higher concentrations salt suppresses sweetness and enhances savoury tastes making it an excellent ingredient in savoury foods.
In a margarita, salt suppresses bitterness which in turn makes the sweetness and sourness seem more intense – which explains the taste bud explosion in your mouth.
Your sense of taste changes as you get older.
Your tongue is sensitive to five basic tastes.
A margarita is a cocktail made with tequila, orange liquer and lime juice. It is traditionally served with salt on the rim of the glass.
Salt enhances the flavour of food.
Before refrigeration, salting fresh fish was almost the only way to preserve it.
The Romans loved fish but were keen not to waste the innards, gills and other leftovers. They experimented with layering the fish scraps with salt and squeezing it down with heavy weights. The result was fermented fish sauce or ‘garam’, which the Romans used as a food flavouring.
Before this, the Chinese had produced something similar, known to cooks today as Nam Pla or fish sauce. In East Asian cultures, salt is not traditionally used as a table salt, but introduced in food through salt-rich soy sauce, fish sauce and oyster sauce.
By the 17th century, the English were melting highly salty anchovies into a sauce and using it like garum on food. They called it ketchup - a name that derives from the Indonesian sauce Kecap (known from England’s medieval spice trading). After experiments with walnuts and mushrooms, ‘tomato ketchup’ was born and to this day contains a lot of salt.
Ketchup and chips – a match made in heaven.
Ketchup now comes in a variety of flavours including mushroom and chilli.
Steamed dumplings with a bowl of soy sauce to dip them into.
There are few more delicious smells than freshly baked bread. Most bread recipes call for salt because it improves flavour, texture and rise as well as preserving it from getting stale.
Where there is good salt, good bread is likely to be nearby. In Northwich, this may be one of the factors that contributed to the early success of Roberts Bakery, now one of the UK’s largest bakeries, distributing its products countrywide.
Around the world, serving bread and salt to guests is a traditional form of hospitality, especially in the Arab world. In Russia and the Ukraine, weddings feature a fresh loaf and some salt on the table to symbolise a lasting alliance. In Russia, the word for hospitality ‘Khlebosolny’ translates as ‘bready-salty’, with guests responding with the wish “May salt and bread never leave your home.”
Different cultures make bread in different shapes and flavours.
During a Russian and Ukrainian wedding ceremony, the bride and groom eat a traditional loaf of bread to symbolise a lasting alliance.
A loaf of decorated bread with salt at a Ukrainian wedding.
The tradition of breaking bread and having salt has spread to space. Salt and chunks of bread were used as a welcome at the Mir space station and at the International Space Station.
The Romans understood the importance of salt so whenever they conquered a place that had salt, they quickly established a salt works. By the time they arrived in Northwich, the area had been producing salt for centuries using the open-pan method.
As far as is known, Northwich produced the first pan-evaporated salt in Britain. The site later acquired the Anglo-Saxon name of Northwich. The suffix ‘wich’ denotes a place where salt is produced and also explains the naming of nearby Nantwich and Middlewich (middle salt town).
Over the millennia, Cheshire developed into Britain’s foremost salt producing region, eventually exporting worldwide through Liverpool. Salt was one of the founding trades of Liverpool and the city’s Salthouse Dock is a reminder of its importance.
The Romans established salt works in the lands they conquered.
Salt was produced at the Lion Salt Works by evaporating brine in a large open pan.
The ‘wich’ salt towns in Cheshire. The suffix ‘wich’ refers to a place where salt is produced.
Cheshire salt used to be exported worldwide from the docks at Liverpool.
Salt is a key ingredient in all cheeses and is one of the most effective ways of preserving milk. It is no surprise therefore that the abundance of salt in Cheshire contributed to one of the county’s most famous exports - Cheshire Cheese.
Salt not only improves the flavour of cheese but preserves it for longer, meaning Cheshire Cheese could reach markets further away without deteriorating. This gave Cheshire Cheese a strategic early advantage and it quickly established itself around the country and is known to have been Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite cheese. By the late 18th century it was the most popular cheese in the UK and it remains a best-seller.
Each year, Nantwich in Cheshire hosts its International Cheese Show, where awards are given to exhibitors from around the world. The show was established in 1897 and today attracts over 5,500 entries every year.
Cheshire cheeses - including Delamere Dairy's goat's cheese, two cheeses from Burt's and cheese from Crabtree, Bourne's and Appleby's.
Cheshire Cheese is known to have been Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite cheese.
The cheese-making process.
Like Northwich, Parma in Italy has naturally-occurring brine wells nearby called Salsomaggiore (‘big salt place’). Such was the enormous wealth derived from this salt that those who controlled its brine wells controlled the region. People not only bought its salt but also its most famous salt product – Parma Ham.
The quality of its hams was enhanced by the area’s dry warm winds that helped age the pork and also by the fact that its fertile soil meant that its pigs were fed on the whey from another of its famous products, Parmesan cheese. Salt is a key ingredient in all cheeses.
Parmesan cheese probably became recognisable as what we use today in the thirteenth century. It is now know as as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese because it is made in the pasture between Parma and Reggio.
The countryside around the city of Parma in Italy.
Parma Hams hanging up in a shop.
A Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Samuel Pepys was a 17th century diarist. He claimed to have saved his Parmesan cheese from the Great Fire of London by burying it in his garden.