Salt, the Mediterrenean white gold

Nutritionists, cardiologists, and mothers all over the world are fighting a relentless battle against salt, considered, rightly or wrongly, one of the main enemies of our health. But, before continuing your war, stop for a moment to think how sad life would be without the delicious Pata Negra or San Daniele hams, Kalamata olives from Greece and Taggiasca from Liguria, pecorino cheeses from Sardinia and Pag islands, dried tomatoes from Puglia and capers from Pantelleria, anchovies from Cantabrico and bottarga from Cabras, the Pissaladière of Nice and the fügassa of Genoa, Bagnacauda from Piedmont and Colatura di Cetara, Parmigiano Reggiano or Caciocavallo Podolico, but also an easy salad what it would be without a pinch of salt… Come on, be reasonable, stop this war!


A short history of salt

Before we were able to artificially create refrigeration, salt was the most durable and accessible method of preserving food. Therefore, since ancient times it has represented a key element for the survival of entire populations. It was a very precious commodity and a symbol of power, so much so that it assumed the function of currency for trade and remuneration (hence the word wages).
Already in the Neolithic, salt became part of the diet and culture of human communities, mainly used to preserve foods subject to rapid deterioration, but also for other uses such as leather tanning.
In the Roman imperial era, the production and trade of salt were monopolized by the central government, which perfected its production in the salt pans and organized its distribution throughout Europe.
During the Middle Ages, salt spread as a bargaining chip, and taxes on its production and trade multiplied.
Throughout the subsequent period, salt remains a fundamental asset that will always be controlled by the central power. Which imposed taxes that affected the selling price by up to 70%. In Italy, the state monopoly on the salt trade will cease only in 1975.

Flamingos at sunset

Salt and society

Salt was a real “white gold” in the name of which wars were fought, weddings were blessed, religious functions were held, generations of smugglers have survived, and roads and ports were built.
Many roads and paths were opened for the salt journey. The most famous is perhaps the Via Salaria which brought salt from the Adriatic to ancient Rome. But there were many other routes opened over the centuries which. In particular, from Italy and the south of France, going towards central and northern Europe to bring there those precious minerals.
Governments that were lucky enough to own a salt pan, or to be along these trade routes, used to impose various taxes. This became the cause of riots and singular forms of protest. It’s curious to know that the tradition of saltless bread, still widespread in Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, is often linked to the taxation of salt.
In Florence, it seems that against the tax increase imposed by the hated Pisan rivals, who controlled the arrival of salt by sea, the Florentine bakers reacted by starting to produce bread without salt.
In Umbria, according to popular belief, it could be a custom originating from the famous War of Salt which in the sixteenth century was fought by the city of Perugia against the Papal State, which imposed heavy taxes on salt.
Whatever the reason, the historical fact remains that during its transport the salt suffered numerous taxes and duties by the various states and small governments encountered along the salt routes.

Flamingos over salt pans

Salt production and processing

The extraction technique has been similar for millennia. In lagoon and marshy areas, settling tanks are created connected by a system of canals where, due to the effect of the sun, the water evaporates leaving a dense residue called brine.
This saline compound is transferred to other tanks where calcium salts, carbonates, and other heavy metals are eliminated first. Then we proceed to the crystallization of the salt which is deposited on the bottom. When the right concentration has been reached, the salting tanks all turn pink due to the appearance of a typical alga (Dunaliella salina), one of the few organisms capable of living in these conditions. Its appearance is the signal that the salt is ready for harvesting. The spectacle of these deep pink expanses of water is truly impressive.
At this point the salt is collected in the typical white piles, which characterize the landscapes of the salt pans. This allows, also thanks to the action of the rains, all the elements that are not pure salt to drain away. The crude salt is refined and washed, remaining 99.5% pure sodium chloride. Finally, it can be marketed as sea salt, which differs from rock salt extracted from mines.
Salt was generally extracted in July, and its production was part of that cycle of organizing the labor that moved from one sector to another according to seasonal needs. This is also a widespread practice in most of the economies of the Mediterranean. They began in June with the cutting of wheat and forage, from July to September they worked in the salt pan. Then they continued with the grape harvest and then with the olive harvest, and finally, they dedicated ourselves to cutting wood for the winter.

Cycling salt pans Sicily

Salt pans in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean has always had ideal conditions for the extraction of salt, so there were hundreds of salt flats scattered along its coasts. Today there are far fewer active in production however, they are all places of great historical and, above all, naturalistic interest. The salt flats are in fact wonderful ecosystems where human activities coexist with hundreds of wonderful bird species such as the marsh harrier, avocet, herons, egrets, moorhens, terns, and the elegant pink flamingos. In addition to having preserved and seasoned our food for millennia, today it preserves uncontaminated environments and a large part of our history. Let’s discover with us some of the most beautiful salt pans in the Mediterranean!

Discover salt pans with us!

We can take you to some enchanting places, such as Sardinia among thousands of pink flamingos and dream beaches. Or in Sicily, between Trapani and Marsala, where the ancient mills made one of the most beautiful sunsets in the Mediterranean. Or even Camargue, between the Salin de Giraud and the wonderful Aigues-Mortes salt flats.

But it would also be very nice to take you to discover the tradition of unsalted bread, Pane Sciocco (dull bread), which wonderfully accompanies the savory and tasty dishes of central Italy, along an amazing coast to coast trip which crosses Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, from Tirrenian to Adriatic sea.

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