How do you get Edible Salt out of the Sea?

We are so used to being warned not to eat too much salt nowadays that it may be hard to imagine how life in the past involved a constant effort to obtain enough of it. Not only does it render any food tasty, it is a vital nutrient and death is the inevitable consequence of a salt deficiency.

It was given for centuries as part of the wages for soldiers to ensure their good health, and the word “salary” derives from this. It was once called “white gold” for its rarity and value.

Salt works at Marsala. The windmill you can see is used for milling very large salt rocks into smaller pieces.  on the left you can see heaps of salt, protected from the rain by terracotta roof tiles. The salt extracted from the sea is left like this for the 6 winter months to continue drying out.
Salt works at Marsala. The windmill you can see is used for milling very large salt rocks into smaller pieces. on the left you can see heaps of salt, protected from the rain by terracotta roof tiles. The salt extracted from the sea is left like this for the 6 winter months to continue drying out.

In many cultures salt even took on magical properties. Sicilians scatter salt on the ground to protect themselves from the evil eye, and believe salt given as a gift brings good luck.

Salt has been very cheap since the mining of rock salt was industrialised in the 19th century. Before then, only deposits near the surface could be extracted, at great expense.

The other way to produce salt was to extract it from the sea through evaporation, but this was only possible under very specific conditions. The coast had to be flat with a large expanse of very shallow sea spreading out from the coastline. The sun had to shine continuously for weeks in summer. There had to be constant wind to power the windmills which pumped sea water from pool to pool, causing it to evaporate more and more until the salt crystals lay on the ground ready for collection.

These windmills power Archimedes screws, which pump water upwards from the sea pools further out to sea, into the pools further inland. Each successive pool has undergone more evaporation and the saltiness is therefore more concentrated. Archimedes was a Sicilian, by the way, born in Siracusa.
These windmills power Archimedes screws, which pump water upwards from the sea pools further out to sea, into the pools further inland. Each successive pool has undergone more evaporation and the saltiness is therefore more concentrated. Archimedes was a Sicilian, by the way, born in Siracusa.
These salt mounds are waiting to be covered with roof tiles, which you can see on the ground near them. One worker stands on the top of the mound while the other throws tiles up to him, a distance of at least 20 feet: they never seem to miss.
These salt mounds are waiting to be covered with roof tiles, which you can see on the ground near them. One worker stands on the top of the mound while the other throws tiles up to him, a distance of at least 20 feet: they never seem to miss.

Trapani and Marsala, on the western coast of Sicily, have these ideal conditions and have been producing salt for centuries.

I took the photos in this post at Marsala, where salt is still produced according to the ancient techniques. There are many areas of Sicily where sea salt production is mechanised, but Sicilians value tradition, so the salt from this this working museum is considered superior.

When the windmills are required to turn, canvas sails are lashed onto the wooden framework.
When the windmills are required to turn, canvas sails are lashed onto the wooden framework.

Sicilian sea salt is not like the easy-flow salt I used to buy in England. Sicilians do not use salt cellars with holes in the top, as it would never come out. They keep it in jars and scoop out what they need with their fingers, even when adding it to food at the table.

Some of the tools used for shovelling and sifting salt from the salt marshes into heaps. The workers wear sterile wellington boots, but little else as they work at the late end of summer when the heat is sweltering.
Some of the tools used for shovelling and sifting salt from the salt marshes into heaps. The workers wear sterile wellington boots, but little else as they work at the late end of summer when the heat is sweltering.

More info

Ettore Infersa official website

 

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13 thoughts on “How do you get Edible Salt out of the Sea?

  1. What a great post and photos too. When I was little, my grandparents used to live by the sea and we would go and collect sea-water and over a few weeks evaporate the water leaving us with salt. I think the Romans used to go to the same place.

    It was very pure and strong salt, much more than what was in the shops at the time.

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  2. When I visited the Salt museum in Trapani I heard that the windmill technique came with the Spanish power over Sicily, and indeed these windmills look very Spanish, you can imagine Don Quixote just coming round the corner 🙂

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    1. That’s very interesting!
      And Marsala is a very Spanish town, walking around the old town centre you could actually be in Spain and the buildings are just like the ones you see in Seville and other southern Spanish towns.
      In the museum at Marsala there was an Archimede screw witha hand crank, for two men to turn it – so maybe that is what they did before the Spanish came.

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    1. The salt is pink? And it comes from an inland sea? That is so cool, it certainly doesn’t need windmills to make it more impressive!!! You link has lovely photos.. and it’s interesting that it also contains other minerals like magnesium and calcium.
      And yes, I had forgotten about the importance of salt for preserving food as well. It’s still widely used in Sicily for preserving olives, capers and various types of fish.

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  3. Please know I enjoyed the lesson in mining salt! We have big salt mines here in Kansas and windmills for pumping water but it’s so good to learn something new. When I saw the windmills I couldn’t figure out how in the world they would ever get enough wind to turn them but the canvas covers makes perfect sence. I own a little place in Cianciana and I love the people and the land. Your blog in very enjoyable and informative. Keep up the good work!! Ciao Nancy

    On 1/20/14, The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife

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    1. That’s interesting. I didn’t know they mined salt in Kansas. I learned recently that Britain had very important salt mines in the 18th century and pioneered new, more economical methods of extracting it – which was completely unknown to me before going to Marsala!
      I do recommend visiting the salt works in Marsala next time you’re in Sicily, as it makes a fabulous day out. This is their website.
      http://www.salineettoreinfersa.com/
      You can even spend a day being a salt worker and really get to know the production process first hand. It looks like heavy manual labour to me and, since my post-Christmas diet is going extremely badly, I think I may try it as an intense flab-burning activity.

      I am making inroads and networking with the international residents of Cianciana, BTW – we may have some friends in common. 🙂

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  4. Wonderful post as always.

    My dad said that the salt from Trapani was so prized that it was a major export. When a heavy tax was imposed, people used to smuggle it out in their boots!

    I can’t wait for this to be part of your Sicily book. Let’s talk about your guest post for me soon.

    Hugs!

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