Precious Salt

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Salt and Pepper Shakers

A favorite pair of salt and pepper shakers on the author's table.

To say that someone is “the salt of the earth” is to indicate that the individual is steady and reliable — a good person. An “old salt” is a seasoned sailor who is probably “worth his salt,” meaning that the man deserves his wages. If a seaman uses “salty” language, he might say things which would make a lady blush or a pastor grimace. The sailor perhaps refers to skilled seamanship as being “salty.” The ocean is called “the old briny.”

Individuals used to be described as being “below the salt” if they were perceived to be lowborn or socially inferior. This expression comes from the fact that at one time salt, a valuable commodity, was kept in a beautiful salt container at the head of the dining table where the master sat. The “more select” guests sat nearer the host (and the salt).

The “master salt” shakers or “salts,” often lovely silver or glass, are quite collectible now. In more recent times pretty little individual salt (and pepper) shakers or saltcellars were set at each diner's place setting. I recall first seeing such individual salt containers in the 1950's when I dined in the home of a cousin. The adorable little pressed-glass, oval, footed bowls puzzled and impressed me. At first I didn't understand what that white stuff might be.


Morton's offers boxes of table and rock salt.

Salt (sodium chloride, NaCl) is, of course, valued because it enlivens the taste of food, often intensifying and balancing the flavors. Salt has also long been used to preserve foods. It dehydrates fleshy tissues, speeding up the drying process. It is used in curing and pickling. Country hams are often salted (and smoked) so that they can be kept unrefrigerated until sliced. Salt has non-food uses, too, such as for de-icing pavement.

Salt forms in crystals in sea water and natural beds above and below ground. It is said that the white crystalline mountains of salt at Trapini on the island of Sicily are a glorious sight. Trapini sea salt has a special taste, as do other “gourmet” salts from specific geographic areas.

When, as a child, I encountered the little salt dishes, the only kind of salt I (and most Americans) had ever seen was the white kind sold in cylindrical containers at the grocery store. (Eventually I discovered the existence of bigger salt crystals when I was served, on a bed of rock salt, raw oysters on the half-shell. I also discovered that the rim of a Margarita glass is traditionally beaded with slightly coarse salt.)


Morton's sea salt is available coarse or fine.

Nowadays Americans can buy Australian Murray River pink flake salt, “black lava” salt, Hawaiian red gold, and Helen Môn pure white sea salt (which is extracted from Atlantic Ocean water around the Welsh island of Anglesey). Malden sea salt is a popular English salt. From the coast of Brittany in France comes “sel gris” [gray salt]. It is harvested by hand-sweeping the surfaces of shallow salt-water ponds to collect the mineral. On an especially warm day, that one day's evaporation of salt crust on the surface of the salt pool is harvested as choice “Fleur de Sel.” It is less salty than some salts, with the faintest aroma of violets and crustaceans. A black salt from India contains sulfur, and has a definite strong odor. Salt harvested on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean tastes very salty and yet is a bit sweet, too.

Salt is one of the four or five flavors which human taste buds recognize. The complex salt flavor adds a dimension to food, often taking a dish from “flat” to fabulous. Take that with a grain of salt [ugh!] — don't oversalt your food.