Books: When It Rains, It Pours ; Salt Has Shaped Our Culture Just as Much as Gold. Felipe Fernandez- Armesto Relishes Its Savoury Past: SALT: A WORLD HISTORY Mark Kurlansky Cape, Pounds 17.99, 484pp
Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe, The Independent (London, England)
Salt sustains life and feeds dreams. You taste it in blood, tears and sweat, for the body is a sodium-reactor, dissolving and recycling salt. The mineral is indispensable; yet most metabolisms seem to crave far more than is necessary. It is the only rock we eat. It makes soil barren, yet symbolises fertility. It kills bacteria and suppresses decay. It seals covenants and dries documents. It attracts myths and inspires mystique. It is the stuff of illusions as well as the staff of life. It has been revered by every culture and reviled by modern dieticians. It is abundant but hard-won: where there are no mines or salt-pans, it has to be coaxed from plants such as coltsfoot or samphire.
The big story in the history of salt is of the increase in our intake: from less than 700mg daily per person in paleolithic times to nearly 4,000mg in the developed world today. Alarmed by this trajectory, low-sodium evangelists have blamed heart disease, fatally high blood pressure and even asthma on over-indulgence in salt.
Surprisingly, this story does not feature in Mark Kurlansky's new book. Nor does the ensuing controversy about the gravity of the salt- hazard. Yet the drive for more salt, the struggle to control supply, and the high values which go with high demand have been major influences in global history. Some effects are well known: how salt- taxes made medieval monarchies, triggered the French Revolution and fuelled India's independence movement. Kurlansky gives a gripping account of Gandhi's famous "march to the sea" in search of untaxed salt.
These episodes seem of slight significance, however, compared with the economic revolutions salt has caused, and the routes of cultural exchange it created. Two great salt-deficient markets warped world history into new directions: the gold-rich west African market in the late middle ages and the huge food-salting industry of northern Europe - especially of the Netherlands - in the 17th century. The first of these sustained the medieval gold trade, the second profoundly influenced the course of early long-range maritime imperialism.
Salt was the chief commodity that kept the trans-Saharan gold trade going in the middle ages. When Ibn Battuta, the widest- ranging pilgrim of the time, crossed the Sahara in 1352, he accompanied a salt caravan from the mining center of Taghaza. The scenes he described can still be witnessed today because the densely populated Niger valley still relies on salt imported by traditional means. Taghaza, to Ibn Battuta's sophisticated Maghribi mind, was "a village with no attractions. A strange thing about it is that its houses and mosque are built of blocks of salt and roofed with camel skins. The Blacks trade with salt as others with gold and silver; they cut it in pieces and buy and sell with these." Taghaza was squalid, but its trade was worth millions.
In northern Europe, the salt shortage was even worse than that of bullion - especially when population began to rise in the 16th century. Changing taste played a part. The Renaissance transformed courtly cookery, as it transformed other arts. In the kitchen, reversion to ancient texts and Graeco-Roman sources of inspiration demanded the abjuration of Arab influence.
When Renaissance cooks tried to revive …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: When It Rains, It Pours ; Salt Has Shaped Our Culture Just as Much as Gold. Felipe Fernandez- Armesto Relishes Its Savoury Past: SALT: A WORLD HISTORY Mark Kurlansky Cape, Pounds 17.99, 484pp. Contributors: Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 2, 2002. Page number: 12. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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