news from the island
Salty Stuff

Tuesday August 28, 2007

Salty Stuff

Today sea salt is still ingrained in many facets of island life. Such is its cultural and culinary importance that it even crops up in religious festivals - such as the colourful carpets of salt that mark Corpus Christi. And features in traditional island cuisine - such as the de-facto national dish of papas arrugadas - the small wrinkled potatoes that are cooked in salt water and which feature on virtually every restaurant menu.


Salinas del Janubio

Reminders of the size and scale of the salt industry are still peppered across the island. The most visible being the still functioning salt works at Salinas del Janubio. Where tourists can visit a restaurant which offers great views across the salt flats below. And where top quality island sea salt is still for sale.

Other salt flats are still visible beneath the Mirador del Rio, by the coast in Guatiza, close to the International Art Museum in Arrecife and rather fittingly – just outside Costa Teguise, on route to the island's desalination plant.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 15th Century the island's indigenous population, the Guanche, used to extract salt from cocederos - natural drying pools by the sea – where they would simply scoop up the salty foam left once the tide had receded and the seawater had evaporated.

The conquering Europeans refined this method by creating a creating a number of canals, pipes and enclosures. As the seawater flowed through this system elements such as calcium carbonate and calcium sulfate would be removed. Until just pure sodium chloride or salt remained, which would then be allowed to dry for up to 8 days in order to facilitate crystallization.

Sea Salt & Fishing

The story of sea salt on Lanzarote is inextricably intertwined with that of fishing. As salt's main use was for preserving the catch of island fishermen. The Canarian fleet primarily fished the Saharan bank - just off the nearby coast of West Africa. And sea salt would be used to conserve their catch until they returned to shore.

Some of the fish would then be sold fresh. But in the absence of any other form of preservative and without refrigeration the bulk would then dried and salted.

As a result the salt industry really took off in the Eastern Canaries (i.e. Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote) - where the bulk of the Canarian fleet was based -close to the African coast.

Various island businessmen competed for royal warrants that were carefully controlled by a very watchful Spanish crown. Which operated a fiscal monopoly on mainland salt production in order to protect the lucrative American export market.

Catholicism also played a vital role in salt's rise to prominence. As during the 150 days of Lent islanders were prohibited from eating meat. Which left dried, salted fish as the main alternative. Little wonder then that meat was deemed more desirable - especially by the wealthier gentry. And for centuries dried, salted fish was considered both down market and unpopular a foodstuff associated with social inferiority and poverty.

First Salt Flats

Lanzarote´s first major salt pools were based in the bay at Famara - a location deemed ideal because of the prevalent heavy tides and proximity to the island's then capital, Teguise.

Production on Lanzarote grew steadily through the late 18th Century - until the island was supplying much of the internal Canarian market. In 1798, for example, 49, 373 100-kilo weights of sea salt were shipped to Tenerife via Porto Naos. And other islands, such as La Gomera, would trade wine in return for their salt supplies.

Both fishing and salt production really took off in the early 19th Century. As the Spanish Crown recognized the importance of eradicating taxation laws on Sahara Bank fishing in order to feed the growing population of the islands. And thanks also to the cessation of pirate raids from Algeria and the creation of a peace and trade accord between Spain and Morocco in 1765 making fishing the African coast a far less dangerous proposition.

Now, the Spanish authorities became more concerned about the English, who were of course the leading naval power of the time and who never missed an opportunity to meddle in the politics of the region in order to undermine Spain. During the Spanish War of Succession, for example, the English were quick to supply Algeria with guns and ammunition in return for trade advantages.

The introduction of refrigeration during the 20th Century effectively dissolved large-scale salt production on Lanzarote. But the Salinas de Janubio close to Yaiza still produces several thousand tons a year. And echoes of the past remain - such as in the names of hotels, like the Gran Melia Salinas and restaurants such as El Almacen del Sal in Playa Blanca – which was once an old salt repository.

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