Salt: how it flavors history


Of all the ingredients used in cooking, none, I believe, is taken more for granted than salt.

A recipe will instruct us to add it "to taste." No exact quantity is given, nor are we told what type of salt to use. Many cooks underplay the salt anyway, knowing that at table family and guests (sometimes even food writers) will reach for the salt before tasting the food. Dietary revisionists lobby to restrict its use, even though salt is essential to human life.

It is true, also, in this era of the home cook as keen tracer of ingredients, that salts of different sizes, colors and origins are in demand. One salt is recommended for long-cooked dishes. Another should never be dissolved in water but may be sprinkled on salads and vegetables at the moment of serving. A third is pronounced ideal for brine. Merchants offer flower of salt (fleur de sel) and - kitchen god, please spare us - salt doctored with spice.

I sprinkle salt on this page today in hopes of drawing your attention to a new book, Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky (Walker and Co., 2002, $28).

We've read Kurlansky before, or should have, in books such as Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and The Basque History of the World.

"A salt is a small but perfect thing," he writes in this compilation of salty yet savory stories. Not only is sodium chloride "the only family of rocks eaten by humans," but it was also, until about 100 years ago, "one of the most sought-after commodities in human history." During the centuries before food was frozen and canned, brining and drying with salt were the best ways to preserve it.

Kurlansky paints on a vast global canvas. He traces salt harvesting back to China's Shanxi Province in 6000 B.C. and slowly returns to the present, pointing out salt's influence on Rome, northern Europe and the New World.

Some tidbits: In the 13th century, the Hanseatic League's power was based in part on an alliance between the herring and salt trades. Gandhi gained fame in India by staging protests against a salt tax. In the Americas, Kurlansky writes, "whoever controlled salt was in power."

Through the centuries, salt has been in demand as a flavoring. And, as Salt shows, it has flavored history as well. While the book contains a smattering of recipes, it is not a cookbook.

Incidentally, there's more than one saltcellar on the table just now. Another book, Salt: Grain of Life by Pierre Laszlo (Columbia University Press, 2001, $22.95), though briefer, covers quite a bit of the same historical ground with a scientific bent. (Laszlo is a chemist.)

William Rice writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Roger Verge's Chicken Baked in Salt

4 servings

6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

4 cups coarse salt (sea salt preferred)

3 cups ice water, approximately

1 roasting chicken, about 4 pounds, patted dry inside and out

freshly ground pepper

1 large sprig fresh rosemary

1 bay leaf

3 whole chicken livers

4 cloves garlic, unpeeled (optional)

4 cups washed and dried lettuce

4 tablespoons oil (walnut preferred)

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Make a salt crust by combining the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the ice water, 1/2 cup at a time, and knead until you have a well-blended, workable dough, 3 to 4 minutes. (This may be done with an electric mixer using the flat paddle.)

Lay the dough on a lightly floured work surface, and using your hands or a rolling pin, pat the dough and spread it out into a circle large enough to enclose the chicken.

Sprinkle the cavity with pepper, then slip inside the sprig of rosemary, bay leaf, chicken livers and optional garlic, if using. Truss the bird with string (do not use skewers) and lay it breast down on the center of the dough.

Wrap the dough completely around the chicken, enveloping it so that it will be hermetically sealed. Then turn the chicken over and lay it breast up on a baking sheet. Bake 1 1/2 hours, undisturbed.

Place the lettuce in a bowl. Make a vinaigrette with the oil and vinegar and add enough to coat the leaves. Toss.

Place the cooked chicken, in its crust, on a large carving board. The crust will be very hard, so use a mallet to tap a strong knife through the crust. (Hold the knife parallel to the cutting board and tap gently so as not to pierce the chicken.) Make a circle around the top third of the crust, remove the lid and lift out the chicken for carving.

Extract bay leaf, rosemary and garlic, if using, and discard. Take out the chicken livers, cut them into slices and mix them with the salad. Carve the chicken. If juices are not too salty, drizzle some over the chicken and serve.

- Adapted from "Roger Verge's Cuisine of the South of France"

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