Origins and use

Until about a billion years ago, seawater was as free salt as that of rivers. The current salt concentration (about 35 grams per litre of water) dates back to when, around four billion years ago, the Earth started to cool and torrential rains poured into the planet for thousands of years, forming the sea.

After the re-emergence of the earth, the waters continued to flow into the sea and flowing on the surface of the continents, they were enriched with mineral salts eroded from the earth, then discharging into the oceans. Even today, the degree of salinity of the seas varies according to depth: it is, in fact, higher on the surface, where evaporation is greater, scarcest at the maximum depths or where the flow of freshwater is more substantial, for example near an estuary.

Since ancient times, the human being has resorted to salt in his diet, to flavour food but also to preserve them for a long time, in ages when food stocks needed to be durable due to the fear of having to suffer hunger and the conservation systems were practically non-existent. From the nutritional point of view, in fact, salt is the most ancient and natural preservative, having the ability to remove the water that makes micro-organisms proliferate, to regulate the fermentation processes of the meat and contribute to determining the fermentation of favourable bacteria, together with temperature and humidity. And so as above all meat, fish and milk have given life, thanks to salt, to cured meats and cheeses, which have similarly allowed the conservation of raw materials for days, months and even years.

There are reports that as early as 10,000 years ago, at the origin of agriculture and the subsequent use of cultivated cereals, notoriously poor in salt, man has begun to resort to salt in cooking food. Archaeological finds tell us that salt, an element considered to be once more precious than gold, was present in the first settled civilizations, such as Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese (3,000 BC), Hittite and Jewish (2,000 BC). In Italy, we know that the Etruscans already used it.

The Romans used salt (which they called “sal”) in votive offerings made to the gods, and its importance to them is also evidenced by some terms with the same root: “hi” when you had to wish a good day, “salus”(health), “salubritas” (health) and according to the historian Gaius Plinius “salario” was the ration of salt received as pay by soldiers and slaves.

Even today the Italian word “salario” (English “salary”, French “salaire”, Spanish “salary”) is used with reference to the payment of the hours worked during the day.

Value of the salt

Routes of the salt, Sicily

It goes without saying that, since ancient times, this mineral has played an important role in the life of the human being and has been a great demanded good, especially by those people who lived in places far from the sea and therefore had greater difficulty to supply.

In short, salt has become a kind of basic necessity, obtainable from the deposits of rock salt (mine salt) or through the evaporation of seawater, and its commercialization has provided an opportunity for enrichment comparable to the obsidian, the amber, the spices, the sugar and the silk.

The “routes of the salt” that spread from the sea to the internal territories (look the Via Salaria) were large commercial streets, to transit along which you often had to pay a tax calculated on the value of the goods in transit. During the Middle Ages, salt continued to be considered a very precious commodity and the taxes applied to its transport passed from 2.5% of the Roman imperial age to 20%.

Thanks to its geographical position, Italy became the centre of the salt trade, and this favoured the enrichment of producing or exporting cities, such as Venice and Genoa, for example.

The centrality of this product in everyday life is evidenced by literature, mythology and religions, one for all the Christian one. For example, in the Discourse of the mountain of Jesus, handed down in the Gospels, is famous the phrase of Christ which, addressed to the apostles, said: “you are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavour, with what can it be salted?” (Matthew 5, 13).

The recipes of the great humanist cook Bartolomeo Sacchi called Plàtina report that salt was the “wisdom” of food: “The kitchen needs salt so that the food is not insipid. In fact, we call vapid and foolish persons because they have no salt, that is to say, wisdom”.

Japanese wrestler throwing a hand full of salt into the ring for purification

Salt: symbolic values

Precisely for its nutritional value and consequently for its venal value, salt acquires over time numerous symbolic values, such as that of “fidelity and stability”, when, with its exchange in the “salt pacts”, agreements were concluded between marriage and economy, or that of “purification from evil”, when it was sprinkled on the occasion of baptisms, blessings or exorcisms.

In the East Mediterranean and the ancient Greeks (but also in Japan), the sacredness of hospitality was sanctioned by the “ritual of sharing” salt with the guest; at a sumo wrestling match, you will see the wrestlers throwing a hand full of salt into the ring. Again, this is for purification. It’s believed that this is done so no evil spirits can enter the ring to prevent the wrestler from winning.

Because of its great value and consideration, the waste of salt was considered an indication of bad luck and if it fell on the table or on the ground, the ominous could be averted, as is known, throwing a pinch behind the shoulders.

Which salt?

Which salt are we talking about? From the chemical point of view, the salt is an electrically neutral compound, made up of the set of several ions (anions and cations), generally arranged inside a crystalline grid, joined by an ionic bond, ie a real force of electrostatic nature. From the gastronomic point of view, the salt, or the cooking salt, is just one of the many possible salts, namely sodium chloride (NaCl).

The “food” salt is obtained from the salt marshes, ie from naturally evaporated seawater: one cubic meter of seawater contains about 30 kg of sodium chloride and other salts. Most of the salt marshes have been obtained in flat areas at sea level. The most extensive in Europe are still today those of Santa Margherita di Savoia in Puglia.

In addition to seawater, it can be obtained by mining from salt mines (rock salt), activities that before the industrial revolution, was relatively difficult and very dangerous, and therefore entrusted to slaves and prisoners.

Salt consumption in the alimentation

The World Health Organization affirm that the daily consumption of salt, in order not to be dangerous, must be less than 5 grams, but nevertheless, we continue to consume excessively salty meals. Recent scientific studies carried out on the subject have shown that in Italy men would consume about 10.8 grams of salt per day and women about 8.4 grams, a result similar to what emerged with children between the ages of 8 and 11. Today in Italy, as in many other countries, we ingest a double daily dose of salt necessary to our body due to the increase in consumption of industrial food products that lead us to addiction to salty always looking for larger doses (also to enhance the taste, from sauces to desserts, and encourage the consumption of drinks).

The consequent risks are known: hypertension, kidney diseases, cardio-cerebrovascular diseases, tumours and osteoporosis.

In addition, further scientific publications indicate that reduced sodium consumption and increased potassium consumption can help prevent hypertension, and therefore cardiovascular disease.

The reduction of salt in food is now a priority for WHO and for the European Union, and one of the objectives pursued by the Italian Ministry of Health with the “Gaining health” program.

The kitchen of “Without” Chef Oliver Glowig

The kitchen of “Without”

Many initiatives carried out at various levels aim to contribute to reducing the use of salt for food purposes while safeguarding the taste of food. An example is the initiative “The kitchen of “Without”, devised and promoted by Lucia and Marcello Coronini, with the aim of promoting a kitchen “without salt, fat and sugar”, which is expressed in the event “Gusto in Scena “, held annually in Venice at the prestigious headquarters of St. John the Evangelist School since 2011 and to which the best international Chefs compete.