The Spice of Life, the story of Salt and Pepper

Geology and Biology

Spice Box, 19th century
Spice Box, 19th century

Salt is the only edible rock, one of its many contradictions. The mineral is formed by the violent coupling of sodium, a highly volatile metal that bursts into flames on contact with water and chlorine, a poisonous green gas. Rock salt occurs as a solid deposit that can be mined, or is formed by the evaporation of seawater. Salt crystals are cubic in shape and in this crystalline form are called halite.

The globe is covered with salt. The oceans are 3.5% salt and sodium compounds comprise 2.6% of the weight of the earth’s crust, which is richly veined with seams of halite and riddled with salt-lined caverns. All life came from the sea. Even our own bodies are largely bags of brine supported by bone. Our blood, sweat, tears and semen are all salty.

Salt Mythology

Saltcellar, c1850
Saltcellar, c1850

Early fables confirm the psychological importance of salt to ancient cultures. There are many Norse versions of ‘Why the Sea is Salt’ and a similar folktale, ‘The Magic Mill’, comes from Greece. A mysterious stranger instructs a poor man, on the road to the Dead Men’s Hall, to trade food for the hand-mill kept behind the entrance gate of the Hall (or Hell). The mill has magical properties and with it the poor man and his wife are able to grind out everything they need. The man is eventually persuaded to sell the mill to someone who does not know how to operate it. The new owner takes it to sea, commands it to grind salt and is unable to stop it.

‘Love like Salt’ probably originated in India but variants are found in Germany and England, where it became the source for Shakespeare’s King Lear. A loving daughter is disowned by her father because she says she loves him only as much as the salt in her food. Much later he is invited to a grand wedding feast where the food, prepared without salt, is bland and tasteless. The king realises his mistake and the bride reveals herself to be his estranged daughter.

Salt as Symbol

Spicebox c1900
Spicebox c1900

Salt has powerful symbolic meanings all over the world. In Japanese Shinto belief it is revered for its power to cleanse and purify. It is scattered on thresholds to ward off evil and offered in tribute to ancestors. In Aztec Mexico the goddess Huixtocihuatl presided over salt and salt water. The God of Israel’s bond with the Jewish people was an eternal ‘Covenant of Salt’ (2 Chronicles 13: 5). When Christ described His Apostles as ‘the salt of the earth’ (Matthew 5: 13) he was probably alluding to their purity and strength in the face of corruption. At pre-Reformation baptisms the priest put hallowed salt into the infant’s mouth to

‘signify the spiritual salt, which is the word of God, wherewith he should be
seasoned and powdered that thereby the filthy savour of stinking sin should
be taken away’.

In ancient Greece, in Russia and still throughout the Arab world salt represents friendship and hospitality; the communal eating of bread and salt creates an unbreakable bond. The Bedouin will never fight someone with whom they have shared salt. The spilling of salt is a bad omen. In his painting of The Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci shows Judas Iscariot upsetting a saltcellar. After spilling salt we throw a pinch over our left shoulders to ward off evil. An Indian myth suggests that every grain a woman spills during her lifetime must be swept up with her eyelashes in Paradise.

Salt and Geography

The quest for salt is primal. Carnivores obtain it from the meat they eat but herbivores must seek out exposed salt deposits to lick in order to maintain a dietary balance. Humans need to eat salt but we also crave more than we need, since it enhances the sense of taste. Salt has always been a sought-after commodity, mined for millennia. In 1573 a dried but well-preserved body of a man wearing brightly-coloured, woven clothes was excavated at Hallein, near Salzburg (the names mean ‘salt works’ and ‘salt town’) in Austria. The man was an Iron Age Celtic salt-miner, around 3,000 years old. The Romans referred to Celts as Galli (Gauls) from ‘hals’, the Greek word for salt. The provinces of Galicia, in both northern Spain and in Poland have the same root – land of the salt people. Elsewhere in Europe, place names such as Moselle in northeast France and Salies-de-Béarn in the southwest, Salsomaggiore in Italy and Spanish towns prefixed ‘Salinas’ commemorate their associations with salt production. Britain’s largest deposits of salt were formed beneath Cheshire 220 million years ago. The names Nantwich, Droitwich, Norwich and Sandwich denote places where salt is found.

Maracas Salt & Pepper Shakers, c2007
Maracas Salt & Pepper Shakers, c2007

Salt is mined but it may also be farmed. As early as 6,000 BC the Chinese harvested the salt crystals left when the brackish waters of Lake Yungcheng in Shanxi Province evaporated in the summer sun. The ancient Egyptians made salt by evaporating seawater in the Nile delta. A salt garden is laid out as a chequerboard of wide, shallow basins on the seashore. These fill with a controlled amount of seawater that evaporates to a concentrated ‘pickle’. Evaporation needs plentiful hot sunshine; the major producers of traditional solar-dried salt are in Africa and India. The cubic crystals of common salt are produced from boiled brine.

Salt in Politics

Salt & pepper shakers, c1950
Salt & pepper shakers, c1950

The desire for salt has been harnessed to social and political ends throughout history. A salarium was a special payment for salt made to soldiers of the Roman Empire. The term ‘salary’ is now used for all work-related payment. In 1343 the French king set up the Gabelle, a tax levied on salt traders, following Arab practice. Hugely unpopular, it was one of the causes of the French Revolution. Though briefly quashed, Napoleon revived it to pay for his campaigns and it was only finally abolished after World War II. Wars have been fought over salt and control of the salt trade regularly tipped the balance of power. The Dutch made peace with Spain in 1609 because of their dependence on coveted Spanish supplies of salt from Portugal and the Caribbean.

Under British rule India was forced to buy imported salt; making salt was illegal. In 1923, a century after the abolition of salt tax at home, Britain doubled the Indian salt tax. Mahatma Gandhi hit upon a brilliant form of peaceful protest against British rule. He and his followers set out on a three-week pilgrimage to the sea and on 6 April 1930 reached Dandi Beach in Gujarat. Having taken a ceremonial bath in the sea as a ritual cleansing, they gathered and distributed the salt incrustations free of tax, activities that were rapidly copied by others. These symbolic actions helped to hasten Indian independence.

Salt and Food

‘Sal sapit omnia’ (Salt flavours everything)

Rubik's Cruet Salt Mill, c2008
Rubik’s Cruet Salt Mill, c2008

The ancient Egyptians included salt and salt-preserved birds and fish as funerary offerings in tombs from the 3rd millennium BC. In Europe the Celts pioneered the use of salt as a preservative and were probably the first people to make salt-cured hams from the legs of wild boar. Over the barren winter period hunting was curtailed and stores of fodder were not sufficient to feed farm animals. Throughout the Middle Ages and up to the 18th century, an annual slaughter of livestock took place in late autumn. Legs of pork and venison were caked in rock salt for weeks, which both dried and preserved them, free from bacterial decay. In the days before refrigeration ocean-going fishing fleets discovered that they could preserve their catches for many weeks by salting them. The word ‘salad’ derives from the Roman custom of salting leaf vegetables.

In the Middle Ages fine table salt was expensive and always in short supply. At great feasts salt was presented in elaborate silver vessels. Later these were decorated with marine motifs or gods of the sea. These saltcellars or great ‘salts’ were placed at the top table for the host and his principal guests. Lesser mortals, who sat further away, were said to be ‘below the salt’. Since salt corrodes silver, silver salts had to be lined with non-reactive gold and were later fitted with blue glass liners. Glass and ceramics and eventually plastics proved more practical and affordable materials from which to fashion receptacles for table salt and spices.


Chef’n g’Rabbit Salt & Pepper Mills, c2008
Chef’n g’Rabbit Salt & Pepper Mills, c2008

By the 18th century great salts had disappeared. Individual ‘trencher’ salts that sat beside each diner’s plate had already been in use for centuries. Saltcellars or shakers were joined on the dining table by pepper casters and mustard pots, often sitting together on a little tray or in a holder. Black pepper (piper nigrum) is a flowering vine native to South India. During the Middle Ages, while Italy and later Portugal controlled (and taxed) the spice trade from the Indian subcontinent, pepper was a luxury only available to the wealthy. Pepper berries are harvested when green and unripe, blanched in hot water and dried. The outer fruit shrinks, wrinkles and becomes black. White pepper is the seed of the same berry, stripped of its outer skin. Unripe green pepper berries and ripe red ones can be preserved in brine and vinegar. Different species of the mustard plant yield tiny red, black or yellow seeds. Mustard thrives in temperate countries such as England and Hungary, as well as India.

Stella Beddoe, Senior Keeper and Keeper of Decorative Art

3 Responses

  1. Axel

    Very interesting!
    I came here while searching for the meaning of the pepper and salt shaker gifts at weddings, and ended up with a nice read on the meanings of many words.


  2. Pamila Cariss

    This is an amazing history of salt. For Easter I am preparing place cards with salt and pepper shakers at the table. I thought there was a symbolism of salt at the last supper. I am grateful for all this information.

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