Who would have thought it! Salt isn’t all that good for me.
When I was born, way back in history (i.e. the early 1950s) nobody told me that I shouldn’t eat too much salt. They didn’t tell my mother, either, so salt was added in cooking to make what wasn’t a particularly tasty meal more palatable.
We were, however, a family who almost never added salt to our food at the table so our salt intake was a proportionally reasonable amount. The dreaded chips (i.e. French Fries) were the exception, but they weren’t a food on our plates all that often. Deep fat frying wasn’t my mum’s favourite cooking method.
In my part of Glasgow, Scotland, take-out meals were non existent apart from the ubiquitous British ‘Fish ‘n Chip’ shops. Our nearest Fish ‘n Chip shop was 5 miles away. With no family car at our disposal, it meant that it was only on a rare occasion that I had fish and chips from the chip shop. My mum cooked fish (though not deep fried) every Friday, since the Fishmongers Mobile Van always had the freshest on Fridays – so fish was a regular in our diet with a little salt added before the cooking. However, I always had chips (oh dear! with salt added) after my Monday night swimming classes, along with a huge pickled onion, eaten while I waited for the bus to go home from the swimming pool.
So, what’s happening to me right now? With a 3 year old toddler, and a baby of almost 9 months in my house 24/7, we have gone almost SALT FREE! For the last few months, since my grandson has been eating solid food, we rarely add sodium chloride (salt) to cooked food. We aren’t adding salt to boiled vegetables and meats but we are adding more herbs and spices which make things taste very good. That means Riley gets the benefit of eating what the rest of us do (no expensive baby products) and it’s actually healthier for all of us.
NB. I confess to being the one who still adds just a tiny smidgen of salt at the table- but only occasionally on French fries…and I might manage to stop this habit in about another 60 years.
However, the use of salt got me thinking. When I first started to research my current favourite time period of Celtic/ Roman Britain, I was quite surprised to find out that salt was very important to the first Celtic peoples of Europe. For the first Celts of the Hallstatt region of Austria, salt was a valuable trading commodity and, in some cases, it was more important than precious metals like gold and silver. Yes- they could have prestige in wearing a fabulous golden torque or silver armband fashioned by the very best Celtic smith, but if their food was bad and ‘off’ then they might be dead before they got the chance to parade around in their fine jewellery.
Salt is one of the oldest and most commonly used methods of food seasonings, and salting of food is an important process in preserving food. It was a highly prized and expensive commodity till a few centuries ago when new production methods were introduced to make it a commercially viable and readily available and cheaper product.
The Celtic Hallstatt salt mines in Austria are said to be the oldest known salt mines in the world and were first mined in approximately 800BC. By 400 BC, the people of the area were transitioning from using pickaxes and shovels to the practice of open pan mining – an easier method.
This photo from Wikimedia Commons is taken in a German museum and depicts the situation for the earliest salt mining methods.
By the first millennia BC, the Hallstatt Celts were trading salt with Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome for things like wine and other luxuries they couldn’t make themselves.
We all know what it is to earn a salary for the work we do every month but many may not know that the word originates from the Latin word salarium. This word meant the amount of salt ‘nominally’ paid to soldiers of the Ancient Roman Army of the Republic, the practice continuing into the army of the Ancient Roman Empire.
It was one of those catch 22 situations. Meats and fish needed to be salted to preserve it. Soldiers needed to eat the healthiest possible food. The Ancient Roman Army officials were very sneaky in that they made their soldiers effectively work to be healthy!
Not worth the salt meant (it’s believed) that a soldier wasn’t pulling his weight and didn’t deserve his pay. It’s worth noting that there was a ‘paymaster’ in the Roman Army who totted up the annual amount owed to a soldier. From that money ‘held’ for them by the ‘paymaster’ the soldier then had to pay for his own food (including salt) and his own equipment. It was worth working hard because it meant a soldier was able to eat as well as possible. It goes without saying that if a soldier’s equipment was torn, worn, or sub-standard in some way then money was ‘docked’ from his held amount in order for him to purchase the replacements. Over the term of 25 years served (sometimes less depending on the type of soldier and his function in the army) a recruit might manage to save a little from his salarium to ‘bank’ each year. By then, after being ‘cashiered’ the soldier might have a reasonable amount which would allow them to run a small plot of land for a potential family- him not being allowed to officially marry till after serving his term. (This rule of ‘no marriage allowed’ eventually changed by around the third century AD) I guess a soldier who didn’t actually like too much salt might have been able to save more – but I’ve no evidence for this!
I blogged about the Roman Soldier’s kit in 2013- if interested click HERE to read about it.
The word salad also comes from the same Latin root, the derivation meaning the ‘salt added to fresh leafy greens and vegetables’ which accompanied a meal in Ancient Rome.
Salt continued to be a valuable trading item and was partly the reason for those first ‘Hallstatt Austrian’ Celts to migrate and barter salt all around Europe. Some of these original Celts eventually ended up in Britain, their descendants likely to have been the forebears of the Celts in my (fictitious) Celtic Fervour Series of Historical Romantic Adventures.
There are a number of ancient salt mining sites across Europe but the Celts I’ve **just finished**(yipee-the manuscript has gone to my editor!) writing about in ‘The Taexali Game’ (my time travel novel for the younger end of the YA market) would have hated being sent to any of the salt mines of the Roman Empire. In this latest novel, some of my Celtic Taexali people of north-east Scotland are bartered off as slaves in a major treaty with the Roman Emperor Severus in AD 210. If those slaves were sent to a salt mine, their life expectancy was drastically reduced. Dehydration from being in the ‘salted’ atmosphere was disastrous.
It’s sad to say that even in the 20th century AD prisoners were sent to salt mines in Russia and Germany to serve out their time. Nasty business, I think.
Salt is still a valuable commodity, but of course we can acquire it by many methods nowadays, our latest technology much kinder to those who work in the industry.
The big question I’ll leave you with is… Do you still like to salt your food?
Have a lovely weekend…and enjoy whatever is on your plate!
Nancy Jardine writes Historical Adventures and Contemporary Mysteries with different degrees of romance in them. She will soon (come 2015) be publishing Time-Travel action adventures for the YA market.