Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Cover of Salt: A World History by Mark KurlanskyBefore refrigeration, before Louis Pasteur’s work gave us reliable techniques for canning, salt was a critically important means of preserving and storing food to smooth out the seasonal cycle of feast and famine. A people lacking salt faced the prospect of starvation in the gaps between successful harvests and hunts. Considered in this light, salt looms large in the history of humankind. Worth 450 pages? You be the judge.

Those of you who have been on tour with ExperiencePlus! in Mediterranean Europe will find fascinating details about the region’s history. The tuna fisheries at Trapani and Favignana in western Sicily, which are featured in our tour of Sicily, date back to Phoenician times, when the catch was preserved with local sea salt and traded throughout northern Africa, the Middle East and into the Black Sea. The same sunny climate that draws tourists to the Mediterranean today made evaporative production of sea salt profitable, and salt and salted fish have been important trade commodities in the region since before the invention of written language.

Venice figures heavily in the book as well. Medieval Venetians produced salt in Chioggia, and raided nearby Comacchio in the 10th century to eliminate competition from the saltworks there. Venice increased its power in the 1200’s by instituting advanced economic policies like subsidizing salt importation and manipulating production throughout the Mediterranean to control salt prices. Kurlansky asserts that Venice is the grand center of art and architecture that it is today because of the profits from the salt trade. Nearby, along the Po River in Emilia Romagna, the dry climate and active salt trade led to the development of two of Italy’s most cherished culinary institutions: prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan) cheese. Customers familiar with our Venice to Florence, Venice to Pisa, and Culinary Cycling Circus tours will find in Salt a wealth of historical details about the culture of this region.

But Salt is not just about Mediterranean Europe. Kurlansky winds his tale around France, Eastern Europe, the British Isles, the Baltic region, the Caribbean and the Americas, and takes us back full circle to China. He writes about the role of salt in relation to trade and protectionism, war and conquest, slavery, innovation and progress, across nearly the entire globe and all of recorded history. The scope of the subject boggles the mind, but Kurlansky’s clear prose keeps things in perspective. Throughout the text, he provides contemporary recipes and accounts that bring the dead past to life in the reader’s imagination. My own perspective on the Middle Ages was changed dramatically by reading this book – it was a revelation that the Medieval Europeans struggled with issues like fraudulent food labeling and aggressive market competition, and invented ingenious solutions to extract salt from both land and sea.

One of the few faults of Salt is Kurlansky’s tendency to explain every historical event only in terms of salt. Discussing the events leading to the French Revolution, he focuses almost exclusively on the unpopular gabelles, or salt taxes. The decline of Venice as an economic superpower is attributed primarily to the availability of high-quality, inexpensive Bay Salt produced in the region around Noirmoutier (coincidentally the site of Stage 1 of this year’s Tour de France). It is hard not to be suspicious that Kurlansky is overstating the case for salt’s pivotal role in such events – but then again, with salted tuna, sardines, anchovies and later cod and herring providing such a huge proportion of the European diet, and pickled vegetables, salt-cured meats and salted cheeses making up much of the remainder, perhaps it is not overstated at all. In a world where salt-based techniques were the essential means of keeping people fed, it is not far-fetched to imagine that wars might be fought, governments fall, and fortunes made and lost over this basic ingredient of civilization.

Indeed, once you’ve begun to read Salt, it becomes clear that 450 pages is barely enough to thoroughly cover a subject that stretches from prehistory to the twentieth century, from China and India through Europe, Africa and the Americas. The book occasionally skips lightly over a period or region that seems worthy of greater scrutiny. This is probably due to a lack of data in most cases, but after such informative and detailed treatment of other places and times it can be a little disappointing. Still, it doesn’t take too many pages to see why Kurlansky’s fine history of salt was a New York Times bestseller. If you are a food enthusiast, a history buff, or a traveler with experience or interest in any of the regions given treatment in this book, you’ll savor Salt.

Rich Young of ExperiencePlus! bicycle and walking tours Rich Young is a cyclist, bike mechanic, ExperiencePlus! programmer and occasional tour leader who has written on bike maintenance, equipment selection and his more memorable cycling experiences in previous newsletters. If you have a question about our bike fleet or our web site, Rich is a great person to ask: