I had never given much thought about salt until a few years ago when I read Roy Moxham’s excellent book The Great Hedge of India. The book tells of a chance discovery, in 1995, of a reference to a gigantic 1,500-mile long hedge which the British grew across nineteenth-century India, and of the author’s efforts to find its remains. What started as a whim became an obsession, as Moxham sought to unearth remains of the hedge and to discover its original purpose.
The hedge, which Moxham had first thought merely a piece of eccentricity, was actually an instrument of oppression used to collect a salt tax set so high that the Indians suffered from salt starvation. Hence Gandhi’s famous Salt March in 1930, when he led nearly 80 men on a 240-mile trek to the coast and boiled seawater to make salt, urging his followers to do the same. “With this,” he declared, “I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” Within a few weeks over 60,000 of his followers had been imprisoned for making salt illegally. But the Salt March has gone down as a turning-point in India’s struggle for independence.
So why was salt so important? Simply, it is essential for life. But the number of uses it has and the history of salt is fascinating and surprising. Sodium chloride really has played a major role in human society. Salt has even been used instead of money – for instance, Roman soldiers were paid in salt, not coins. That’s where the world “salary” comes from and the saying that someone is “worth their salt”.
Anything you ever wanted to know, and more, about salt is contained in Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book, Salt – A World History. Funny to think that those white crystals on almost everyone’s dining table should have had such a profound influence on politics, economics, religion, science, and, last but not least, culinary history.
Now, of course, the UK government’s telling everybody to cut down on using it. Apparently we’re all to consume no more than 6g – about a quarter of an ounce – a day. Gordon Ramsay obviously hasn’t been listening; on a recent programme of his I saw him chucking salt into every dish as if there was no tomorrow. I wonder what his blood pressure’s like? But I’m glad he, at least, isn’t going to put up with Nanny telling him what to do.
I’m always on the lookout for interesting topics for this blog. Believe me, you’d be hard pushed to find something more interesting than salt! Don’t take it for granted.
The Great Hedge of India
Paperback, 244 pages
2002, Constable & Robinson
A World History
Paperback, 486 pages
2002, Penguin Books