Tag Archives: symbolism

Salt

Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?

                                                               Job 6:6

Salt is such a necessary yet ubiquitous commodity that we take it for granted, but this wasn’t always the case; up until the 13th century it was considered a delicacy and after that period it was held in such regard – and such a luxury – that it was heavily taxed. Wars have been fought over its flavour-enhancing and preservative properties. Once you had salt, it was impossible to face a tomato or boiled egg without it, it seems.

Salt is available to us in two forms, rock salt and sea salt, and it has been harvested or mined in Britain and Ireland since the Iron Age.

Several salts are found in rocks or the sea, but in its purest form common salt is the compound sodium chloride. Purified it tastes rather harsh, good quality salt has a much more subtle flavour because the other salts – which makes up to around 30% – present give it an important complexity. I always use sea salt in cookery, and it is doubly important to use it when salt is playing a leading role, like in salt curing for example.

Deer at a salt lick

Ever since our evolutionary predecessors climbed out of the sea, we – as well as the other animals – have been dependent on salt in our diet. Of course, we eat far too much salt these days. The recommended intake is 6 grams and most of us go way over that amount. Perhaps surprisingly, people have been known to become salt deficient, especially those on a vegan diet. Meat contains all the salts you need but plants do not (though there are exceptions). Many animals, mainly cattle and deer, require salt supplements in their diet in the form of salt licks. In the past people have eaten even more salt that we do now; centurions in Roman Empire would get a daily ration of one handful of salt! It eventually became easier to simply give the soldiers the money to buy the salt themselves for their salary (sal being Latin for salt).

Salt, superstition and symbolism

Due to its life-giving properties as well as its ability to prevent food from spoiling, salt has always been highly-regarded, so there is no surprise to find that salt symbolises life and purity to many peoples past and present. We are so tightly-bound with salt, that spilling it is considered a breaking of that bond, and bad form too, seeing how expensive it once was. To undo the bad that has been done, the spiller must throw a pinch over their left shoulder with their right arm; it is over you left sinister side where the demons hang out. In the painting The Last Supper, Judas has knocked over a pillar of salt. Another place you will find demons is in your fire, so a handful of salt thrown in there will cast out any demons present. Salt was disliked by the Devil. Indeed, the devil may try and tempt you with a saltless meal, but don’t worry, if you put salt on the food it will cast it out, just like a crucifix.

Look carefully and you can see Judas (left) knocking over the salt with his right hand.

Salt was important in ritual. For the freemasons it symbolises the ‘life, the mother, the woman’ (as opposed to men which are symbolised by sulphur). Jesus called his apostles ‘the salt of the earth’ and Roman Catholics use it to ‘purify’ their holy water. It was traditional in Ancient Romans to give new-born babies a gift of salt. Sacrificial victims would also be purified with salt to make the poor victim more attractive to the deity in question.

It goes without saying, that all of this should be taken with a grain of salt…

Sea Salt

Sea salt has been extracted from brackish waters in Britain and Ireland by evaporation for many centuries. Water was simply heated in large shallow salt pans over wood fires. This simple method was used over most of Europe wherever there were salt marshes and estuaries. This was by far the main method of salt production until the Middle Ages where salt had to be imported from Europe to meet demands, it was one of the main contributors to deforestation in parts of Europe too, such was the demand ‘whole forests were burned to make this boiled salt’, says the historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat.

‘Drawing’ the salt in the Maldon saltworks

One area of the country that still produces it is of course Maldon, which as a long history of sea salt ‘cultivation’. According to the Domesday Book, in 1086 there were 45 salt pans in Maldon. Salt-making equipment has been excavated from there that date back to the Iron Age. There not quite so much going on these days, but the saltworks at Maldon do produce the best salt in the country.

Old recipes often ask for bay salt, which refers to sea salt i.e. ‘salt from the bay’.

Rock Salt

The boiled salt trade was hit hard in the 19th century when new and efficient ways of mining salt was discovered. The centre of salt mining in Britain is Cheshire, in particular the Winsford salt mine in Northwich which has been active since 1640. There are several towns in the area with the suffix –wich, this comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wych, meaning ‘brine town’. The price of salt dropped and has ever since been pretty cheap, though these days the salt from British salt mines is intended for industry and the production of salt licks for cattle.

Within the Cheshire salt mine

People argue as to which is best, but I think either is good as long as you are buying the unpurified kind.

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Our Daily Bread…

Recently I have very much gotten into bread-making so I thought I would try to tackle a post on its history. Within about 3 minutes of researching, I realised that there is quite literally volumes off stuff and there is no way I could do it any justice in a single post. But I have to start somewhere, so I thought the symbolism of bread and its early beginnings might be a good place to start…

Bread was the one food that everybody depended upon, and it has been the focus of our daily lives for hundreds of years. We talk of ‘earning a crust’ and ‘dough’ is a slang word for money. When taxes get too high, we complain that we are having ‘the bread taken from our mouths’. Bread itself meant food.  Our lives are so linked with bread that many of our words have roots in bread or bread-making: the word lord is from the Anglo-Saxon hlaford, meaning ‘loaf ward’ and lady from hlaefdige, or ‘loaf kneader’; companion and company come from the Latin companio which means ‘one who shares bread’. Jesus’s flesh is bread, and when we pray, we ask Him to give us ‘our daily bread’ and should we get it, we’re ‘truly thankful’.

The Infant Jesus Distributes Bread to Pilgrims by Murillo 1678

I am not a religious person and don’t say Grace or anything like that. In fact, I don’t know anyone who does, but I remember as a child when we had to say the Lord’s Prayer at assembly, thinking that it was strange that we wanted bread (‘Give us this day our daily bread’). Surely there were much better things than boring old bread like cakes and fizzy pop. Plus we would get dinner anyway, so what was the point?

The Georgian essayist, George Lamb, brings up this very point:

The indigent man, who hardly knows whether he shall have a meal the next day or not, sits down to his fare with a present state of the blessing, which can be feebly attached to the rich…The poor man’s bread is his daily bread, literally his bread for the day. Their courses were perennial.

Do such people exist still today? I don’t think so. I’m not suggesting that there is no poverty of course, but the food of the poor is no longer bread. There is certainly more variety of food if you are poor in this modern age, but cheap food is pretty bad. Is it best to spend your money on a load of insipid flavourless food full of additives, or to buy the ingredients for a few loaves of proper bread? I actually don’t know the answer to that question.

You need only four ingredients to make bread: flour (though not necessarily wheat flour), water, salt and yeast. The first three ingredients were not that easy to come by; producing flour was a labour-intensive activity, salt was expensive and good quality fresh water might not even have existed in your town or village. Yeast, however, was easy, it could be found happily residing naturally on wheat. When dough is left for a certain amount of time it will begin to naturally ferment and rise as the yeast grows and anaerobically respires to produce bubbles of carbon dioxide. The earliest evidence for making leavened bread comes from Egypt and dates 4000BC, though it didn’t reach Europe until 400BC in Greece where barley flour was used over wheat. According to Aristotle barley bread was bread so white that it out does the ethereal snow in purity. Tone it down, ‘Totle.

Baking Bread by Helen Allingham, 19th Century

Bread wasn’t always sustaining; in the cities, we have been guilty of baking notoriously bad bread. Its peak was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bakers were displaying very fraudulent behaviour. Additives for whitening were very common; London bread was a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution. One pamphlet author even accused the bakers of using ground human bone! We reached this level state because flour wasn’t available to everyone and so there was no choice. Today there are food standards, but for the main part, most of the bread we consume is in no way near what bread could be. However, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it – millions of people need mass-produced foods, so perhaps this is the best, and only way, to do it.

Peel’s Cheap Bread Shop, Punch cartoon from 1846

According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, the French food historian, there were four evolutionary steps that led toward the ‘invention’ of leavened bread.

  1. Pounded grains: raw or fire-roasted grains were eaten crushed or whole.
  2. Decoction, mash or porridge: the raw or cooked grains were pounded or ground and mixed with water to make a dough. The mixture was then either eaten or drunk.
  3. Maza: a thick dough is moulded into the shape of a flat cake and baked on embers, a griddle, an oven or in a glass dome. These were common in the Stone Age and their little-changed descendants still exist today in the form of pitta and chapatti.
  4. Bread: cereals suitable for bread-making are used such as wheat, spelt, oats, rye and buckwheat. Left over dough from a previous baking – the leaven – is added and the dough is left to rise and improve in flavour and texture. It is then cooked in a preheated oven or a glass dome.

So bread is what one’s world revolved around, and it has – in the most part – become a flabby mass-produced pre-sliced affair that somehow turns back into dough when you squash it. In the past, a huge amount of effort was required to bring together the four ingredients and bake them. Future posts will tackle those ingredients and the ways they were cooked, the machines built, the microbes or chemicals used to flavour or leaven, the holy days they were often baked for, and how village and city life depended on the producers of the ‘staff of life’.

Bread recipes added so far:

An Everyday Loaf

Coburg

Hot Cross Buns

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Filed under baking, bread, food, General, history, Teatime