Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Some History Should Be Taken with a Grain of Salt

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Some History Should Be Taken with a Grain of Salt

Article excerpt

The paradox of salt is that it is one of the most common of substances, and yet, throughout most of human history, it has been expensive and difficult to obtain.

At Taghaza in the western Sahara, salt was quarried in 200-pound blocks. It was loaded two blocks per camel, and carried 500 miles to the trading city of Timbuktu, where merchants resold it throughout West Africa for gold. Back in Taghaza, meanwhile, the stuff was so common that even the hovels of slaves who worked in the mines were built from blocks of salt.

A commodity that was, well, as common as salt in some places, but worth piles of gold only a few hundred miles away, was the stuff that fortunes are made of. And since before the invention of refrigeration salt curing was virtually the only way of preserving fish, meat, cheese, or vegetables, people needed salt far more desperately than they do today.

In this sprawling history by anecdote, Kurlansky takes us from India, to Hawaii, to the Iron Age salt mines of Germany, peppering the route with surprising tidbits of knowledge.

Who knew that all of the English town names ending "wich," from Nantwich, to Northwich, to Middlewich, once produced salt? The Anglo Saxons, it turns out, called a saltworks a "wich."

And while I never acquired my dad's appetite for salty fish roe, the most prized of which is called caviar, I was rather certain that sturgeon caviar only came from the Caspian Sea. But Kurlansky tells us that the medieval rivers of Europe were full of egg-bearing sturgeon. The King of France had the right to sturgeon caught in the Seine at Paris: Louis XVI ate the last one in 1782.

The amusing part is that the King ate the sturgeon steaks, not the caviar. Caviar was common stuff when sturgeon was a common fish. It was added to savory sauces as a flavoring and eaten by working people. Only after sturgeon were driven from European waters by overfishing and pollution did gourmets begin to pay small fortunes to eat salted fish eggs from mother-of-pearl spoons.

A casual reader might be forgiven the impression that salt has often been the leading factor in international trade. Just such overstatement was much of the fun of reading "Cod: The Fish that Changed the World" (1997). …

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