This article deals with salt and Roberta Muir looks at Salt from a linguistic point of view whilst Franz Scheurer looks at the various salts available for cooking, as condiments and what distinguishes them.

Salt Speak

By Roberta Muir


Salt plays an important part in people’s diets throughout the world, and has done for thousands of years. Less well known is how liberally the word “salt”, in all its many guises, has influenced language.

The word salt came into the English language via Old Norse, appearing in Old English as sealt. It is thought to have originated from the Indo-European root sal, which eventually became: Latin sāl; French sel; Spanish sal; Italian sale; Rumanian sare; German salz; Swedish salt; Danish salt; Dutch zout; Russian sol; Latvian sāls, Polish sól; Serbo-Croat so; Irish salann; Welsh halen; and Greek hals (from which we get halogen).

Salt has been a prized commodity since earliest times due to its ability to both preserve food and enhance its flavour. The process of gathering salt is referred to as “winning”, a term also used for the extraction of coal and ore. The expression “salt of the earth” means someone of great value and comes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ye are the salt of the earth.” The Bible refers to “a covenant of salt” on a number of occasions, implying that the covenant is incorruptible and cannot be broken. Moses told the Israelites that if they did not add salt to their sacrifices they would not please God, and Homer described nations who did not use salt on their food as “poor”.

In his work on the food of Africa, Laurens van der Post describes a very frightened native that was approaching his party, and his own realisation “of the overwhelming necessity which had overcome the native’s fear of the strange men. He had come simply to ask for salt.” Van der Post says that he never took salt for granted from that day onwards. 

Salt’s value has led to it being associated with hospitality and friendship from the earliest of times and many nationalities, including the Swiss, still offer salt and bread (the staff of life) as a traditional housewarming gift, invoking the hope that the new home will never be without either of these essential commodities. Breaking bread and sprinkling salt are signs of union, and the Russian word for hospitality, khleb-sol, literally means “bread-salt”. Assyrians from four thousand years ago used the phrase amelu sa tabtiya, “man of my salt” to denote a friend (as in a person with whom one shares valuable salt). To eat a man’s salt in Arabic is to accept his hospitality. The Arabic greeting Salaam, meaning “peace”, certainly looks as if it may relate back to sal.

Salume and salame (plural for salami) is derived from the Latin sāl, as does the small fresh or dried sausages known as salsiccia. Sauce comes from Latin salsus, meaning salted, as salt was always the most basic condiment. Salsa, Spanish and Italian for sauce, has now entered the English culinary language as a chunky sauce often with spicy ingredients. Saucer was originally a vessel that held sauce, from the Old French saussier. It didn’t take on its modern meaning of “something to go underneath a cup” until the eighteenth century. Salad also derives from salt’s ubiquitous use as a seasoning, from the Latin herba salata, “salted vegetables”, the most basic of early salads.

Saltcellar is another interesting word. It is derived from the Anglo-Norman saler (which became seler in Old English), the name of a vessel that held salt. At some point the original “salt” meaning began to fade, so the prefix “salt” was added to seler creating a salt-seler, which eventually became a saltcellar.

The Roman’s paid their soldiers an allowance with which to buy salt. This allowance was called a salarium, from which we derive the word salary.

Silt most likely came into English, via Scandinavia, from an original reference to the mud in salt flats; it appears to be related to the Danish and Norwegian word sylt meaning salt marsh. Other possible salt-derived words are more dubious: Salute, salutations, salutary and salubrious come from the Latin salūs meaning safety or well being; perhaps from the Latin sāl (salt) without which well-being would be impossible? (From salūs, we also get save, safety, salvage, saviour and salvation.) Sale, sell and related words go back to the Gothic saljan, to offer sacrifice, which, given salts high esteem in ancient times, could derive from the Indo-European sal. Schott in his Food & Drink Miscellany suggests that our word soldier also has its origin in “salt”, as does Mark Kurlansky in his work Salt. Other sources however, suggest its origin may be in the gold coins used to pay soldiers, from Latin solidus meaning “solid”. It is tempting to attribute such words as salient, salacious and sauté (and their related assault, assail, desultory, insult, result and sally) to sāl, however, these are all derived from salire, Latin for jump.

Corned beef is so named because of the whole grains of salt, known as corns, which were used to preserve the beef. Souse, which now means to drench in any liquid, originally referred to soaking something in salted brine (from the Old German sulza “brine”). The cooking term “marinate” also reflects salts ubiquitous nature. It comes from the Spanish word marinar, “marine”, indicating one of the most ancient sources of salt: the ocean. Marinades were originally pickles whose primary purpose was to preserve, not flavour, raw or cooked fish, and were therefore very high in salt. Sallow meaning “of an unhealthy colour”, relates to the Old Norse word sol meaning seaweed, another marine reference. Old sailors are often referred to as old salts.

“To salt” means to introduce valuable ore (gold especially) fraudulently into a mining sample as a way of (falsely) increasing its value. Other metaphors for salt include liveliness, youth, vigour or pungency, as in: “His wit added salt to the conversation”. In Othello, Shakespeare uses it as a metaphor for sexual passion when Iago says: “Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, as salt as wolves in pride _”

Other saline expressions include: “worth ones salt”, from the practice of making payment in salt rather than cash; “below the salt”, from the practice of placing a saltcellar midway down the table-the most important guests were seated near the head of a table, the less important were seated “below the salt”; “salt away” or “salt down” was to hoard or save something valuable; “to be true to one’s salt” was to stay loyal to your word; “to rub salt into the wound” means to cause further pain, from the practice of rubbing saltwater into wounds inflicted on sailors from floggings.

Spilling salt is considered unlucky: in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Judas is portrayed as having knocked over the saltcellar near his elbow. The devil is said to hate salt, and throwing a pinch of spilt salt over the left shoulder (into the devil’s eyes) is said to prevent the misfortune that would otherwise ensue from its being spilt. Salt is also sometimes sprinkled over coffins. In the Shinto religion it is believed to have a cleansing or purifying quality and so it plays an important role at funerals with small mounds often placed near wells and at the entrance to buildings.

Since the beginning of civilisation, centres of trade and commerce have grown around salt deposits. Rome’s first major road, the Via Salaria (Salt Road), was built to transport salt across the Italian peninsular to Rome. The Celts were salt miners and salt traders; and the word Celt was the name given to them by the Romans, and means “the salt people”. Jericho, established some 12,000 years ago, was more than likely a salt trading centre because of its proximity to the very salty Dead Sea.

Throughout the world many place names indicate a role in the salt trade. In Austria there is Salzburg (salt town) and nearby Hallein (salt works) and Hallstatt (salt town) where the bodies of Celtic miners from 400 BC have been found preserved in the salt mines. Others include Halle in Belgium; Tusla (salty) in Bosnia; Droitwich in Worcestershire, England (“wich” is Anglo Saxon for “salt works”); also Northwich, Nantwich, and Middlewich in neighbouring Cheshire, the centre of British salt production since Celtic times. In Egypt there is Sabkhat al Bardawīl (from the old Arabic word for saltworks: sebkha); in Italy, Salsomaggiore (the big salt place); Germany, Hallstadt (salt town) and Halle; Sweden, Hällstad (salt town); Ukraine, Halych (from Roman Galacia), and in France there is Salies-de-Béarn (the saltworks of Béarn), Hyères (flats referring to salt flats), and where Celtic grey sea salt is produced today, Guérande (the name comes from the Breton language meaning “white country”).

So next time you sprinkle some grains of sea salt over your salad, throw a handful of Celtic grey salt into your pasta water or grind some rock salt into your sauce, spare a thought for the important role salt has played throughout history, not just in our diet, but in our language.

Salt on the market

By Franz Scheurer

There are many more types of salts available than I can cover here, so I will restrict myself to salts I like and use, on a regular basis.

Salt, in its natural state takes on the colours of the environment, be this the elements present, algae or types of minerals and water. It is found dry, wet, in crystalline form, solid, etc. Here are some types of salt I collected at Murray River, before they were processed or used:

Salt Bricks

Most cultures produce salt bricks, mainly used as salt licks for animals, but there are a couple that are made exclusively for human consumption and these are the Himalayan Pink Salt Bricks and the Yemeni Salt Bricks. These slabs of salt can either be broken up into usable pieces or you can cook on the brick, heating it in a wood-fired or standard oven first, then cook on the slab. This is a fairly standard way for nomads to use salt bricks as they use them both for human and animal consumption.

Flavoured Salt

Just dream of a flavour and somebody probably makes it. Unfortunately most flavoured salts use inferior salt and artificial flavours. There are a few exceptions and I particularly like the Halen Mon Vanilla Salt on either salty caramels or chocolate fudge.

White, Grey and Pink Salts

These are divided into sea salt and ‘land’ salt. Sea salts are generally made evaporating the water and land salts are either mined or won by dredging salty, inland waterways. They come in a variety of textures, from wet grey salt to flaky pink salt or powdery fleur du sel.

Black and Smoked Salts

I believe it was the Icelandic that started smoking salt over the dying embers of a fire in the early whaling days. Today this has become a bit of a fad, but the Danish Viking Smoked Salt and the Icelandic Fine Smoked Salt must still be the market leaders. Black salts appear from Bulgaria to the US and are more about appearance, as they are generally quite mild.

Hawaiian Pink Salt

This needs its own category as it is unusual, texturally and taste wise. It’s sweet and salty and is available in a myriad of lighter and darker shades of pink. It is a superb salt to be used as a condiment and not for cooking. You lose both its superb texture and taste.