SALT OF THE EARTH, SALT OF THE SEA.
As far as food goes, there is nothing as elemental as salt. It is the great transformer, magically turning the insipid to the savoury.
We have always used it and so do many animals as well, in short it has a key role in health and nutrition. My first real awareness of the power of salt came when a friends mother, who had been on a no/low salt diet for over a year started becoming progressively ill. The usual visits to the GP`s were predictably useless until a elder doctor of some repute and of course experience was consulted. In the way of those steeped in experience, he questioned her thoroughly and soon elicited that she had been eating virtually no salt at all. He recognised the problem immediately and recommended the cessation of the saltless regime. Of course in the next week she regained her health and began to feel like her “old self” again.
This really caught my attention, and as it was at the very beginning of the demonisation of salt which has now been rolling out for some years, it engendered an awareness of the power of salt to heal as well as to harm.
The historical record of salt is one of healing and power which afforded it a central place in cooking, food, medicine and alchemy. That it was the new enemy amused me as much as alarmed. The power of fashion is never to be underestimated and it rarely contains wisdom, so I became even more interested as to how a commodity , once the root of culture really, was within the space of a few years, supposedly the cause of illness. This is largely high blood pressure and resultant stroke or cardiovascular disease.
Of course my central interest here is in the role of salt in bread making, and the calls to reduce the amount used in bread baking.
But this is within a larger context of food and diet, bread is food after-all, not just a commodity.
In bread baking, the Japanese macrobiotic teachers I had in the 1960-70`s, insisted that salt was the vital alkalinizing force in nature, and that used in bread in the correct proportion, alkalinized the inherent acidity of cereal grains. Historically this is where salt does play a major role. That is in the conversion of the staple of humans, whole cereals, into assimilable and wholesome food. On the purely personal level of experience, how many of you have attempted to eat cereals without salt? The experience doesn’t last long, as the cereals become stodgy and in fact indigestible. This is an inherent experience of humans with cereals. What enabled humans to become more dependant on cereals as a central food, was the role of salt in what was called “alkalinisation” or simply digestibility.
Historically, and this is a major point missed by many archaeologists, the first roads or major tracks were to and from salt deposits, and much of Roman trading activity seemed to be around the supply of salt. The “via salarium”(salt roads) of the Romans linked the empire. Similar patterns are evident among other ancient cultures notably the Harrapan of the Indus. It appears the rise of the sea level, culminating about 400ACE caused chaos in the Roman empire and the rapid relocation of salt industries and ports, and the military acquisition of new areas because of their salt production. The rise in sea level, which was considerable, caused the flooding of the extensive coastal salt making pans from Britain to the East, suddenly cutting salt supplies.
Technically in bread baking, salt is the “brake” on yeast, preventing it from being overactive and consuming the dough. It performs the function of astringing (tightening/strengthening) the proteins gluten and gliadin which form the lacy network of structures enabling bread to rise and not collapse. The few times ive been making dough and forgot the salt brings on this awareness. The dough was sticky and much less handleable, and my immediate fear was that id been delivered bad flour, until I realised, corrected the salt and instantly the dough was silky and handleable.
Here im talking about natural bread baking, not industrial.. This is more elemental and of course the element salt has a key role. Bread baking has been taken out of this context and as an industrial artefact the parameters have been altered. Also different is that im talking about making sourdough bread, the actual “natural” process. Traditional yeast bread baking actually employs quite a bit more salt as the yeasts are much more active, not being restrained by acidity, and need the “brake” to manage the fermentation, and again to create an edible or digestible product. Older bakers would say that employing salt in the early stages of the yeasted sponge and dough process keeps the dough “clean” and less liable to contamination. If you have made yeast bread without salt you will understand…it is insipid and less edible, although liked by some and is common in Italy. The notorious Chorleywood process by which most industrial bread is made, necessitated an increase in salt levels to toughen the proteins so as to withstand the high speed mixing required by the process.
Elizabeth David`s recipes for yeast bread are initially alarming from this perspective as she uses what is now regarded as an inordinate amount of salt. I bravely followed her instructions and was pleased with the flavour of the bread. Salty it was, but it had a digestibility and balance which I appreciated, and reflected her “salty” take on bread making, flavour, and most things! She advises 20g salt for 550g flour. This is an addition of salt at 3.6% of the flour quantity this being 2.1% of the dough amount, which being 2g per 100g bread, is well in excess of the target of the reformers (consensus action on salt and health), 1.1g/100g bread.
Generally I would use salt at 2% of the flour in sourdough bread making, which is 1% of the finished dough and within the guidelines. But I also vary this as the fermentation becomes more lengthy, and for the production of more crusty items such as baguette. Interestingly some surveys of salt in bread have reported that craft bakeries use higher amounts of salt than factory bakeries, and higher amounts of salt than recommended by the reformers is common in traditional bread-making practice.
As Elizabeth David says “to the majority in England, bread is a substance to spread butter on and the butter traditional to the majority is salted”. The English indeed like salt… salty bread with salty butter, as opposed to the French who don’t mind salty bread, but with unsalted butter. Butter can contain between 1.7-3% salt depending on the manufacturers, and is not targeted by reformers, why is not clear.
It seems that the salt reformers have not taken the old custom of “ a pinch of salt” with their wisdom to heart. Undoubtedly any measure which may reduce the rate of hypertension and stroke leading to cardio-vascular disease is desireable, however some wonder whether the salt reformers may be too zealous in their choice of villain status for salt, taking it out of context, as much “scientific” research seems to do, focusing on singular events in isolation. There are even those who argue that the present level of salt consumption is too low.
The first level of debate about the salt question in relation to health asks, “but is it salt?”. This addresses the fact that salt today is very refined and is largely sodium chloride, causing high levels of sodium without the buffering affect of the many minerals which are contained in actual sea salt. Salt has become synonymous with sodium. That these sea salts such as the famous grey salt of the traditional coastal salt pans of the world, today notably in France, actually contain minerals besides sodium is largely denied by scientific/medical commentators on the salt question. This would appear to be a blind spot as an analysis of seawater reveals approximately 82 minerals besides sodium. Researchers claim that the miniscule amounts of these minerals renders them non bioactive within human health which isnt really a scientific stand as it is clear that trace elements are vital for proper human metabolism and that these trace elements are just that…traces of the amounts of more well known and needed elements. Besides that, a population which always eats mineral rich salt will clearly not be deficient in trace elements as these are continually refreshed. The role of selenium for example as a trace element in very small amounts in human health is well researched and verified. It is not clear why this blind spot is maintained by some scientific/medical commentators on salt.
The other macro amounts of elements in sea salt are exactly those elements which some researchers claim are the real culprits in high pressure pathology. These are Potassium, Calcium and Magnesium. In fact it is claimed by some researchers that the lack of Potassium is the key, and that epidemiology shows that those who have a higher Potassium intake are much less at risk of high blood pressure and stroke.
Other researchers claim that these results are inconsistent, with what one wonders…probably with the singular results favoured by modern scientific research. Potassium actually reverses the effect of sodium, decreasing blood pressure. This is again exactly what the macrobiotic teachers claimed about the interaction of minerals, that the sodium/potassium balance must be maintained. Interestingly, Potassium supplementation doesn’t appear to be corrective, the Potassium must be ingested as food, mirroring the paradoxical effect of beta-carotene as a food and as a supplement.
But it is problematic that the largest sources of these minerals in human diet, apart from the balanced amounts in unrefined sea salt, is through the consumption of vegetables, fruit and legumes, precisely those items of diet which have been removed by the industrialists from the diet they have forced upon moderns. Apart from the stripping of these nutrients by the extensive refining of foods, the nutrient bottle-neck of food choices also foisted on us by corporate/industrial dictates means we just don’t eat these foods. Bread is a classic example here, virtually devoid of the nutrients contained in wholemeal even traditional brown breads, with a higher sodium level than ever before. While bread has the lowest amounts of salt of all the refined proto-foods of the industrial diet, it is argued to be the source of too much sodium simply due to its use as a staple.
The actual issue would appear to be that because of the lack of other minerals in the diet, which buffer the effect of salt, that salt, as sodium chloride is causing pathologies such as stroke and cardio-vascular disease, again which the epidemiology shows, does not exist in societies which consume plenty of vegetables fruit and legumes. It is clear when eating in countries which consume a lot of vegetables fruit and legumes, that the food is salty….yet they don’t have cardio-vascular/stroke events as we do? To simply reduce salt intake is obviously simplistic and the result of research which is far too narrow in its focus, and of the lack of correspondence between the various fields of research. Nutritional science is not an integral study and this does not benefit us. Greater efforts to increase the consumption of vegetables fruits and legumes is needed, but this is clearly too visceral a step and one not favoured by the type of research which attempts to isolate factors, when in the actual world they are not isolated at all. It is also not a step which would favour the nutritional-industrial complex who would like to see us continuing to eat erzatz food from their factories, not actual food.
Also relevant and strangely no longer a target of the reformers ,is the strong correlation between sugar sweetened beverages and blood pressure. There is as direct an association as with salt, but also interesting in the report I read from the School of Public Health, London, are the correlations between high sugar-sweetened-beverage consumption and the lack of vegetables, fruit and legumes in the diet. Put all the correlations together and we have the modern industrial diet….devoid of nutrients. This makes the reformers pogrom on salt even more out of context and singular, like the industrial diet itself. Wonder if there is a correlation there?
There`s little doubt really that it is the whole \industrial diet, dare I say paradigm, which is the problem coupled with the inability of researchers to see this is the rest of the problem….which is clearly not the mineral rich salt of tradition, and only partly the sodium chloride “salt” of the satanic mills.
To demand that salt be reduced in bread production is problematic for craft bakers, who perhaps should be excepted from this dictum, which would appear to be pathological only in factory bread. Similarly to demand salt reduction in some traditional food crafts would appear too dogmatic. Salt is vital in bread-making, and here I mean non-factory bread, to ensure its proper digestibility, and to ensure traditional methods survive.
Also vital is the recognition of the quality of proper salt and its reinstatement as a valuable nutritional aspect of food and diet.
The isolation of factors in food and diet without acknowledging the context is a damaging way to examine food and trivialises the notion of inherent quality which is possibly more important than examining mineral content. Pink Himalayan or grey Gironde salt for example, are aesthetically pleasing and nutritionally valuable, both hallmarks of quality. Ghandi`s way of overcoming the unjust tax on salt was to lead a group to boil the water off sea water and make salt in the traditional manner. Worth giving consideration.