Salt may qualify as the least expensive foodstuff you can buy. It can be purchased for a mere 99 pennies per pound at many groceries, and is offered free in little packets at fast-food restaurants.
But the next time you pick up a salt shaker, pause and consider for a moment that this substance was not always so common. Indeed, it has ignited wars, helped spark the French Revolution, inspired Gandhi to make his famous salt march, and was one of history’s most precious objects of trade.
Archaeologists posit that when we were hunter-gatherers, we ate enough meat and blood to give us all the salt we needed. After we invented agriculture, things changed. Plant foods generally don’t provide enough salt for our biology, so we had to supplement. Salt is necessary in the human diet, but luckily there are readily available sources, and we humans probably started processing salt about 8,000 years ago, where an ancient salt-works in China has been found.
In the area of present-day Romania, salt was also being processed at about the same time. Still, even though we have oceans full of it, inland areas didn’t have the same access to the stuff, and thus began the many dramas that spell out the history of salt.
Today, that 99 cent table salt doesn’t seem like much to fight over. Yet some would snub their noses at our common salt and point out that there are other varieties of salt worth getting excited about. Sea salt is a step up from table salt. Seawater is evaporated and the resulting salt has more flavor and trace minerals than the standard staple.
Even more impressive is Fleur de Sel, where the crystals that form on the surface of evaporation ponds are carefully harvested. Other high-end salts are mined from ancient, evaporated sea beds in the Himalayas, Pakistan, or North America.
If you want to get really fancy, you might try Maldon sea salt, which comes in small pyramid-shaped crystals that resemble snowflakes. If you want exotic-looking salt, try black sea salt from Hawaii. Containing activated charcoal, it has a rich flavor and eye-popping appearance.
But if you really want to impress the guests, you’ll have to bring out the world’s most expensive salt, Amethyst Bamboo 9x. Made in Korea, it begins as course-ground grey sea salt. This is placed in aged bamboo cylinders and sealed in with clay. Then it is roasted in iron ovens fired with pine. Eight times it is roasted, with each roast creating more complexity of flavor.
Finally there is a final roast where the salt is melted into a magma-like liquid, cooled, and finally ground into the desired coarseness. It is said to be too strong to eat alone, and is used only in small amounts as a seasoning. That’s a good thing, because a little over one ounce will set you back $34. And a pound? That will run you $272.
If you’ve never experimented with different salts, it’s worth trying a few out (though perhaps not the Amethyst Bamboo 9x). They come in a wide variety of colors, textures, and flavors, each one with different health benefits and each adding a different nuance to your food. As you taste, know that you are eating one of humanities most cherished and storied foodstuffs.