The Salt Pits

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When we talk about salt, we talk most often of sodium chloride. This is NaCl, consisting of the elements sodium and chlorine.

There is a charming tradition in Germany of bringing a loaf of bread and salt to friends when they move into a new home. The saying is that if you have those two items in your house you’ll always survive. Bread and salt are still ceremoniously served to guests in parts of northern and eastern Europe.

Mark Kurlansky writes, “Loyalty and friendship are sealed with salt because its essence does not change. In both Islam and Judaism, salt seals a bargain because it is immutable… In Christianity, salt is associated not only with longevity and permanence but, by extension, wth truth and wisdom. The Catholic Church dispenses not only holy water but holy salt, Sal Sapientia, the salt of wisdom.” [1]

Seeing the hard way salt is won from pits changed forever the way I think about this simple condiment.

We were staying for only a few days in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, and spent a day with a guide and a driver to see a bit of the area. One of the spots we toured was a traditional salt harvesting town. A little settlement lives at and from the pits (and has burned down numerous times). Each time, they rebuild right next to the pits.WR_05_03_176

WR_05_03_164Salty waters are brought up from deep underground

WR_05_03_180and then boiled in open metal pans. Their burning fires glowed and sent off intense heat. The briny steam that rose felt like being in some strange circle of Dante’s Purgatory.

WR_05_03_167

WR_05_03_161Once the water has boiled away the salt is gathered in baskets, weighed, and stored in a barn. WR_05_03_175

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Workers then bag and tag the salt, preparing it for market.

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Salt is a serious business. The salt from this mine is sent to the north where people still suffer endemic goiters.

I thought of the pits of hell, of work so demanding and hot that it left scars. Just being tied to a spot like this must bake you and make you hard. Or so I thought. Instead, I met workers doing their jobs in neatly ironed clothing. The women all had on jewelry. A group of little children trailed us everywhere, laughing and mugging as children do.

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Since that day salt has tasted both sweeter and bitterer, or herber as the Germans say. And in that small word I hear the echo of the coming season, Herbst, Autumn. The summer is burning away and fall is coming. May your harvest tables everywhere include bread and salt.

NOTES: [1] Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (Vintage Books, 2002), p. 7.

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Uwe’s photos of our trips to Laos and his photography may be viewed at viewpics.de. Go to my earlier posts Despair Is An Exotic Ingredient or A Visit to the Food Bank, Part 1 &  2 for more about food.

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24 thoughts on “The Salt Pits

  1. Herbst, Autumn. The summer is burning away and fall is coming. May your harvest tables everywhere include bread and salt.

    Jadi, that sentence is so beautiful and so aptly describes the season. Lovely essay and wonderful photos. Thank you Judy Patton

  2. I am hugely interested in the history, culture and lore of herbs and spices so this is right up my alley. Thank you for this wonderful insight into another form of salt production of which I was not aware.
    –peace, bread and salt to you!

  3. Such a beautiful post. I was amazed by both the story and the photos, never thought of harvesting salt that way. Of course I never gave much thought to it all, except in regards to how some of our American pioneers obtained it. Truly enjoyed reading this.

    • Elizabeth, thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I never considered salt in any way other than how much was too much to put in the soup, etc… Doing research for this post led me to the wonderful quotes on salt as sacred. What can you tell me about how the early pioneers got salt?

      • They’d gather it from dried salt springs or lakes, collect salt water and let the water evaporate in the sun. Or boil it, which is about the same as the method in your article. And then there were salt mines. I guess where there’s a will, there’s a way. 🙂

    • Alison, it is incredible to me to hear from someone who was also here… “knowing” this place changed how we view things as simple as a condiment and as complex as life. Thank you for commenting!

  4. Pingback: # 99 # 99 # 99 # 99 # 99 # | jadicampbell

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