Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Salt by Mark Kurlansky--and roasted vegetables with pink Himalayan sea salt

Fortunes have been made and lost over salt; did you know? History is full of the intrigue and economics of salt. Except for in the last hundred years, salt has been one of the most important commodities made and traded around the world. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky chronicles the thread of salt making, buying, and selling through the ages. I read it this month as our May Kitchen Reader selction, chosen by Stacy of Little Blue Hen. Over the course of nearly 500 pages, he covers most of the world for all of recorded history. Read this book and you will have at your fingertips salt trivia for every occasion--including some fascinating tidbits. As a starter, do you know how the word salary is related to that for salt?

There are a host of words in English related to salt. For example, salad means "salted" and is thus called because the Romans used to salt their greens, as they contended that it removed their bitterness. Salami comes from the same Latin word, since it is made with salted meat. Salt was so valuable in Roman times that soldiers were often paid in salt, and this is were the word salary comes from--as well as the expression "worth his salt".

Salt was sought after pre-modern age because it was the main method of preserving food. Without salt, the summer and autumn harvest could not last through the winter. All around the world, salt was used to preserve fish, meat, and vegetables, and was thus an integral part of any successful civilisation. Later, salt was used to make cheese, or, in other words, to preserve milk. By the Middle Ages, the uses for salt increased to encompass curing leather, cleaning chimneys, soldering pipes, glazing pottery, and it was common as a medicine. The decline of salt's economic dominance began as modern chemistry provided other substances for many of these uses, and crucially, food was preserved through canning, refrigeration, and freezing.

Reading Salt was at times an engrossing experience. The most enjoyable parts of the book are when Kurlansky focuses his narrative on an individual, such as Edmund McIlhenny, an American who got rich from common table salt before the Civil War. He finished the war penniless, and he retreated with his young wife to Avery Island in Louisiana. He ended up finding a huge rock salt mine under the island, experimenting with salt and chili peppers, and inventing Tabasco Sauce. Vignettes such as this one really caught my attention, but there are vast portions of the book that focus on more bland economics that are less entertaining. It's clear that Kurlansky did a vast quantity of research and a lot of the text centred on trade routes and empires, which made for some dense reading.

This tome is certainly thorough, yet there was something crucial missing. I wish there had been a lot more maps. Each chapter addresses the role of salt in one area of the world, each time referring to numerous towns and coastlines. I am sure my geography needs improving, because I found myself confused from time to time trying to keep all the places straight in my mind.

Another small change could have helped me navigate this book better. I found that I didn't get a good overview of the contents of the book from that chapter titles. Am I being petty? Perhaps, but I would have liked to know that Chapter 7, "Friday's Salt", was set in the French Atlantic coasts. The Table of Contents was a puzzle to me, and I found myself pencilling in alternate, simpler chapter titles as I read.

Overall, this was an enjoyable book to read, but I think it was too long for a casual read, but not thoroughly referenced enough to be a scholarly text. I persevered through hundreds of pages because I was keen to read about Gandhi's salt march in 1930. But in retrospect I probably could have skipped forward to that chapter (if I could have found it in the Table of Contents) and not lost anything. But I certainly learned plenty of new things and have a much higher regard for an ingredient we regularly call "common".

Roasted Vegetables with Pink Himalayan Sea Salt
serves 2 or 3 hungry diners

Pink Himalayan sea salt contains "a rainbow of minerals", which (apparently) is very healthy for you. Regardless, it tastes much the same as your favourite sea salt, and looks quite intriguing in a small bowl on the table.

This easy dinner dish makes a main meal with the addition of a few sausages. Or leave them out and serve alongside your favourite roast. In my most recent version of this recipe I used burdock, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and carrots.

4 sausages (optional)
olive oil
1 kg mixed root vegetables, roughly chopped
1 onion, chopped into wedges
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
pink Himalayan sea salt

Brown the sausages briefly, if using, in a little olive oil in a hot frying pan. Turn several times so all sides are coloured.
Mix the root vegetables, onion wedges, and garlic slices in a large baking dish. Add the sausages, if using.
Sprinkle with a generous amount of sea salt and pepper, and several good glugs of olive oil. Toss with a wooden spoon.

Roast at 390 F (200 C) for 45 to 60 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

Our food book club, the Kitchen Reader is reading the acclaimed Blood, Bones, and Butter by chef Gabrielle Hamilton in June. Do you want to join us?


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