Monday, August 8, 2011

Salt of the Earth, Maras Salt Mines, Peru

Mara Salt Mines, Peru

Some of the most basic things in life have the most complex and interesting histories. Take salt for example. In cooking, salting is one of the oldest methods of preserving foods and the simplest means to enhancing flavor. It is essential for virtually all forms of life. It was used as offerings in the funerals of Ancient Egyptians, and the
salarium was a form of payment to soldiers of the Roman army, allowing them to buy salt, which many scholars agree gives us the word salary.

Salt is mentioned in religious texts from virtually every recorded religion. Most languages also have idiomatic expressions including the word salt. "Salt of the earth" dates back to the Bible, and the phrase "taken with a grain of salt" was used as early as 77 AD. "Salty dog" in slang can refer to an experienced sailor.

Mara Salt Mines, Peru

Several years ago, on a trip through the Sacred Valley in Peru, we stopped at the Maras Salt Mines, believed to be in use since Inca times. We descended upon these salt pools in a small bus, our driver navigating the bumpy dirt roads down a steep downward climb to the mine. The views were magnificent as we approached these terraced pools. When we arrived we saw that all of these pools were fed by just a thin stream coming from the mountain. Several salt farmers were busy harvesting and transporting the salt. Throughout history salt has often been a form of controversy, and at the Mara Salt Mines, we learned that these poor farmers were not immune. They work under the heat of the sun in difficult circumstances for a mere pittance, while their famous Incan salt makes it onto the tables of the finest restaurants in Peru.

Salt farmers, Maras Salt Mines

Maras Salt Mines, Peru

Maras Salt Mines, Peru
Until I was about 11 years old, I regarded salt as what came in the blue cardboard canister with the girl and the umbrella on the label and the pour-spout that made a funny noise when I opened it. My family was never big on salting our food at the table. Then we traveled to Spain one summer and my grandmother took us to see a salt mine in the Mediterranean. As I squinted through the sun at the mountains of salt being raked up by heavy machinery, for the first time I made the connection to the source of this ubiquitous mineral. An elementary discovery on my part, but important.

Funny how times and trends change. In the 80's as a kid, salt was really just salt. Over the years it has become a coveted, specialty kitchen item. Pink salt from the Himalayas, French fleur de del, grey and black rock salt, sold in elegant jars with fancy labels and rustic boxes with cork lids. I remember buying my first fleur de sel years ago in France and cradling it in my hands like an expensive gift, then scooping it out carefully to add to my dishes as if it were flakes of gold.

Mara Salt Mines

Sometimes seeing things from a new perspective makes them all the more clear. Salt can sustain life or be very dangerous in excess. Laws regulating salt started civil disobedience in India. Salt can ruin a meal at an expensive restaurant. It can turn watermelon even sweeter or make your tastebuds sing when sprinkled on top of chocolate chip cookies. Human beings contain about 8 ounces of salt. I like to think mine is fleur de sel.

Maras Salt Mines, Peru

12 comments:

  1. These images are amazing. So different from the images I've seen of salt harvesting in France and Italy. Working in the direct sun and carrying the weight of those large bags of salt looks incredibly difficult. There is so much we take for granted.

    I'd like to think my 8 ounces are fleur de sel as well, if you don't mind.

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  2. I have to say that I am a little happy (only a little) that you do not have your own kitchen to cook in right now because I love your latest posts. I have visited saline in Trapani and have read up on salt yet I still learned something new today and found your photos astounding.

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  3. This was just the thing I needed this morning. I shall take the rest of my day with a grain or two of salt.

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  4. Denise- You are definitely made up of fleur de sel.

    Fiona- I'm so glad you say that...you never know how things will be received.

    Tracy- grains of salt are useful in these strange times we're living in!

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  5. So happy to see you're on twitter! Another BEAUTIFUL post Nicole! You are an excellent writer!

    Let's plan to meet up this fall in NYC! That would be fun!

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  6. beautiful.
    Nichole, your photographs portray an other-worldly place. I am entranced by the patterns of white and brown created by those stark terraced pools.
    thought-provoking post---there's always the thin line between what sustains and what destroys.

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  7. Just returning from the salterns of Guérande, thanks for this piece putting salt in this perspective --- I'm using this salt now in my baguettes, which btw, I'm thankful for your introduction to via Sara Taber's "Bread of Three Rivers"

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  8. What a wonderful post and great images. I love salt.

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  9. Hi Nicole, I know you are busy, but I'd like to hear from you for the 7 link game. Please consider taking it up if you have a minute to spare

    http://cookingitalianinthemidwest.blogspot.com/2011/08/seven-links-challenge.html

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  10. Elles sont magnifiques ces piscines de sel... c'est vrai que je n'avais jamais vraiment pris en considération autre chose que le sel de mer... en plus j'ai la chance d'aller souvent aux marais salants de Guérande.

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  11. Vanessa, Tu en as de la chance d'etre pres des marais de Guerande! Il me restent tant de choses a voir en France (et partout dans le monde) je ne sais par ou commencer! (il faut aussi le temps et l'argent, mais on peut rêver....)

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