Justin North
8 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Steve Brown

Kings and conquerers

Over the centuries, salt has been a valuable commodity. Traded thousands of years ago around the Mediterranean, wars were fought for salt, land ceded over it, and humans and animals alike have always depended upon it for survival. Salt has had a variety of uses.

Egyptians marinated olives in brine to make them edible; they also used salt for mummification. The naturally occurring salt in the soil along the Silk Road of China during Marco Polo’s time served to preserve bodies that were buried there.

The ancient Roman government subsidised salt prices during its reign to ensure that plebeians could afford to buy it. They did this to shore up popular support when they needed it, according to author Mark Kurlansky whose book Salt charts the course of this essential mineral. Indeed, most Italian cities were established in close proximity to saltworks, starting with Rome and the saltworks at the mouth of the Tiber River.

Nowadays salt is often used when cooking green vegetables to retain their colour and flavour. Romans salted their raw green vegetables to counter the bitter taste they yielded, and this is the origin of the word ‘salad’, which means ‘salted’. Salt also symbolised the binding of agreements in ancient Rome, so the absence of salt on a meal table would have been seen as unfriendly, even hostile.

The word ‘soldier’ is also a derivative of the word ‘salt’. In centuries past soldiers were paid in salt (which, incidentally, is also the origin of the word ‘salary’), which they would trade on the open market for other goods.

This seemingly innocuous substance has inspired passion and superstition for centuries and is an essential component of the human body. The identification of a salty taste triggers production of saliva and the gastric juices essential for digestion. This is perhaps salt’s most important function, although it is rapidly eliminated by the body and must be replaced frequently.

The underground sea

Conventional belief that salt comes from the ocean seems to make sense, but in reality the ocean is not saline enough to produce salt in the quantities we use. Cheap table salt is mass-produced using a process far removed from the romantic idea of giant salt pans drying slowly under a desert sun. Salt water is heated to 290°C, which removes eighty-two of the eighty-four naturally occurring minerals found in sea water. Then chemical additives (aluminium compounds) are mixed in with the salt to prevent caking. It is far from a natural process, and perhaps adds to the reputation that salt has attracted in recent years as a robber of health.

The drying of salt water under the hot sun does happen, however, and sometimes in the most unlikely places. Its Mediterranean climate and fertile soil have made Mildura on the New South Wales and Victorian border (and about an hour’s drive from the border of South Australia), a popular place to settle, and the agricultural centre has a permanent population of 65,000.

In Mildura, an ancient underground aquifer is used to bring us Murray River salt, a salt distinguished by its unique colour: the minerals from the inland sea give the salt flakes a pink tinge.

The underground source of saline water in Mildura is naturally occurring and has existed for thousands of years. Mining this water for commercial purposes is helping to solve Australia’s considerable salinity problem. It is estimated that an area of earth the size of a football field is lost to creeping salinity in Australia every hour, making the earth impossible to farm, and eventually leading to creeping desert spaces across the continent.

The path of the salt crystal

The company SunSalt was established by Duncan and Jan Thomson in 1983 as a boutique offshoot from a commercial salt-production venture. The processing plant also produces magnesium sulphate (commonly known as Epsom salts) and cheaper industrial salts. SunSalt operates three evaporation pans: two in New South Wales and the other in north-west Victoria. We visited the Mourquong Basin, 13 kilometres from Mildura: a naturally occurring semi-circular salt basin, eight kilometres in diameter. The basin is a natural depression in elevated land, creating conditions perfect for salt production.

Brine is pumped from underground reservoirs 45 metres below the earth’s surface, and diverted into the Mourquong Basin. It rises above the ground from the Parilla Aquifer, an ancient inland sea. Pumping the water out is part of the government-sponsored Buronga Salt Interception Scheme, in place to divert salty water from entering the Murray River system at Mildura.

This brine yields twice the salt content of sea water and is reddish brown. It travels through several man-made locks along a supply channel and into a giant salt pan. At this point, the water is rich in both magnesium and calcium. The area resembles a moonscape, the odd, low-growing salt bush the only vegetation. On higher ground, orange groves are abundant on the horizon. The Riverina district, of which Mildura is a part, is also famous for its citrus production.

The water travels through several canals before making its way to crystalliser ponds that have been laser-levelled. The laser-levelling creates a completely flat surface so that the salt water can dry in flat sheets that can be surface-scraped without mixing soil in with the salt. Facilitated by the depth of the pond, which helps enable sodium chloride crystals to form, the brine is evaporated by the sun. The area around Mildura coincidentally has extremely high evaporation rates (about 1.2 metres of water per year), which creates optimum conditions for the brine to crystallise.

The salt crystallises over the summer months and is then harvested, tractors pushing the salt into mounds that are metres high. It is transported to a nearby processing plant where the salt is slowly and gently passed beneath huge heating devices that dry it, though it does retain slight moisture. The crystals are sorted by size and are ready for sale.

Fleur de sel

Fleur de sel is the salt that has the most romance about it: it is light, fine and fluffy, and this is actually the result of weather conditions on the salt pans. The name, meaning ‘flower of the salt’, originates from the village of Guerande, Brittany, where the salt was first discovered. The temperature in this region is milder than other parts of France. Atlantic currents run clearer. On warm breezy days without rain, a single day’s evaporation of salt crust atop the salt pond is harvested by artisan paludier (craftsman salt harvesters) as the fleur de sel. It is the least salty, purest part of the saline. In Australia, this salt is harvested in much the same way when conditions are right, but they are rarely perfect for creating fleur de sel, which is why it is the most expensive type of harvested salt. It is usually the result of drifts of salt, driven by the wind, that accumulate on the edges of the salt pan.

Pink salt

Pink salt was around in ancient Egyptian times, first harvested from a wadi (dry river bed) north-west of Cairo. Its colour was a result of the mineral-rich soils where the salt water originated. The pink colour of Murray River salt comes from the rich mineral stores of the inland sea Parilla Aquifer. The salt is full of nutrients from the soil through which it is mined.

Golden salt

Like pink salt, the colour of golden salt is the result of residual minerals in the brine from which the salt is harvested. Potassium, iron, calcium and magnesium – substances not found in other salty waters used to make table salt – are present and unadulterated. The golden salt is unwashed, unrefined, and as a result it makes an excellent, highly flavoured garnish. The crystals of golden salt are harder than that of pink salt or fleur de sel due to the minerals present. The water that is used for harvesting salt is quite acidic, adding to the distinct colour of both pink and golden salts.

Wet salt

This salt is harvested while the concentrated, salty-sweet brine is still present in the crystals. When stockpiled, the salt dries and is leached, resulting in an intensified flavour in the salt crystals themselves. This occurs as a natural progression when the wet salt is exposed to the atmosphere. Because the wet salt is bulldozed into piles before it is completely dry (other salts are dried beforehand), it has a strong, salty flavour. At Bécasse I use wet salt for marinades as the moisture in the salt carries flavours further. The wet salt crystals are delicate and have similar flavours to fleur de sel and pink salt; fresh without being too strong.

Recipes in this Chapter

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