Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Take this with a Pinch of Salt

                 Here is a cruet set. It is a small salt dish, a peppershaker and a mustard pot, made in England, in EPNS – the tray was not part of the original set.

Salt is essential to life – too little or too much leads, ultimately, to death. The use of salt stretches back into pre-history; archaeological evidence has been found that Neolithic man used to boil brine to extract the salt from over eight thousand years ago. Idioms and sayings relating to salt are legion –there are numerous mentions of salt in the Bible, from Lot’s wife’s fate ( a pillar of salt) in the Old Testament, to Jesus in the New Testament referring to his followers as “… the salt of the earth”, (Matt. 5: 13). An allowance of salt was given to Roman soldiers, which was later replaced by a sum of money with which to buy salt – hence our word ‘salary’. This is why we say a useless person is not worth his salt. The word ‘salad’ also comes to us from the Romans, who salted leaves to flavour and preserve them. In Latin, ‘health’ – salus – comes from ‘salt’ – sal – and something that is good for your health is properly described as ‘salubrious’ - a word sometimes misused to mean seedy or down at heel, possibly because a ‘salubrious’ hotel or resort (built at the seaside, originally for the healthy salt air there) was not often of the highest quality or most tasteful décor, (and possibly there is some confusion with the word ‘salacious’).

It was once the prank played by saddlers to send a gullible new employee to buy a ‘pen’orth of salad oil’ – a pun on the French avoir de la salade – ‘to be flogged’. Other such tricks, often done on April Fool’s Day, were to send the greenhorn for some pigeon’s milk, a pot of Elbow Grease, a pot of Tartan paint, a bucket of steam, or, my favourite when I worked for British Railways, a Long Stand. The poor lad would be sent to the stores and announce that he had been sent for a Long Stand, and that’s exactly what he would get – he would be left standing there for at least an hour. In my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (14th Ed, 1991), is this jape :- Rick Mould -  ‘ …during the hay harvest … the greenhorn was sent to borrow a rick-mould with strict injunctions not to drop it. Something very heavy was put in a sack and hoisted on to his back; when he has carried it carefully in the hot sun to the hayfield he was laughed at for his pains.” Now, I’ll throw in my hat here and suggest that the practice of Rick Rolling, first dating from 2007/2008, takes its name from this, and not, as some contend, as a variant of ‘duck-rolling’. (Rick Rolling, if you don’t know, is an internet meme, where a seemingly innocent internet link goes not to what is expected, but to the YouTube video of Rick Astley performing his 1987 hit Never Gonna Give You Up). Rick Mould / Rick Rolled? You decide.

Salt shakers were developed from the screw topped table pots for salt made from 1858 by John Mason. As free-flowing salt became readily available, Mason added holes to the lids of his jars. To differentiate salt and pepper shakers, a salt shaker usually has fewer holes (often just a single one). Prior to shakers, salt was placed on the table in salt pots, or dishes, known simply as ‘salts’. These were small, open-topped pots, in which salt was placed and pinches taken as required. Mine has a blue plastic insert, mimicking the blue glass inserts of more expensive sets. The top is decorated with a rope and acanthus pattern, in the Georgian style.

They were sometimes called the ‘Master Salt’ and may have had a small spoon with which to serve the salt. Important people sat at the head of the table – above the salt – and the lower ranks sat ‘below the salt’.

Here are a pair of cut glass salts I picked up somewhen.

As with my recommendation for fine quality chocolate the other day, may I now point you to Maldon Sea Salt. Well worth the extra few pennies.

Tomorrow – pepper.

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