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The Politics of Salt
This impressive space , a few steps along the Zattere from Sugar Street, is the Magazzino del Sale. Now used for art exhibitions, this vast, austere warehouse was once, along with the Arsenale, the most important building in the economic structure of Venice.
“Oro bianco”, “white gold”-salt. According to some theorists, it was this commodity which laid the foundation of Venice’s trading empire. From the arrival of the first Venetians in the lagoon, the salt pans at Chioggia provided the currency which funded the building of the city. Essentials like flour, wood and iron could all be exchanged for salt, and in return for its provision, early Venetian merchants extracted trading privileges along the waterways of the mainland. Under Doge Orio Mastropiero, salt was incorporated as part of the city’s finances in 1179, with the factum salis, the salt tax, whereby anyone wishing to sell salt had to buy a ducal license from the government. Venetian aggression in pursuing dominance in the salt trade led to a series of conflicts throughout the thirteenth century known as the “Salt Wars”. In 1428, the city established the post of Salt Magistrate, whose office, the Provveditori del Sale, oversaw the monopoly on this most precious of minerals. Funds from the Salt Office were used to repair the embankments in the lagoon, embellish the Palazzo Ducale and construct churches and palazzi- painters, sculptors and gilders were all funded by the profits of salt as merchants had their cargoes underwritten by the state. The office was also responsible for reconstructing buildings which had been damaged by fire and even pensioning the widows of sailors.
As Venice, grew, so did Europe’s craving for salt, and the Venetian fleet imported it from as far away as Crete, Corfu, Cyprus and Alexandria. Returning vessels were required to carry a certain quantity of salt as ballast, which would then be exchanged for tax relief, giving Venetian traders a unique state-sponsored edge of competition. The salt, carefully graded into different categories, was then stored in the Magazzino before once more setting off across the seas.
Nowadays, salt has lost its privileged status- it’s the reason why our houses are permanently falling down and our tea tastes nasty, but Venetians still treat it with respect, not least in the obligatory worship of baccala. And it turns up in unlikely places- a few grains sprinkled on a slice of watermelon to enhance the juiciness, or a crack on a slice of salami di cioccolato. This week’s recipes lead a summery take to this ancient and precious ingredient.
Simple Salt-baked Cod Canapé with Fresh Oregano
1 whole sea bass, skin on but cleaned (600-900gr)
4 egg whites
600g coarse sea salt
2 Lemon or orange, sliced finely with zest reserved
Preheat oven to 200c
Ask you fish monger if you can to clean out the fish but keep the skin on, this is important. Prepare the inside of the fist with the sliced citrus, a little bit of pepper and any other herbs you fancy.
Then in a large bowl mix your egg whites until they form stiff peaks and then stir in gently your salt. On a large lined baking tray lay out one layer of the egg mixture that will run the length of the entire fish, then place the fish on top and finish with the rest of the mixture. Being careful to cover all exposed areas of the fish so that a case can be formed.
Bake in the oven for about 25-35 minutes depending on the size. The salt coat should have become hard and starting to brown. If it’s not, leave it in the oven until it is.
Pull out of the oven and let cool fully before cutting into it. This part you need to be careful that none of the incredibly salty case falls on the fillet.
Discard all of the casing along with the skin and you will find that the fillet is perfectly moist and can be easily broken down into large chunks. In a bowl add the fish, olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon zest and let sit until ready to serve. Can be made the day before.
I find these works well on slightly crunchier pieces of bread so there is a good contrast in texture. Works particularly well with fresh herbs but if you don’t have access to them don’t worry and just use dried. Finish with a grating of lemon or orange zest and a crack of black pepper.
Beetroot, Ginger and Salted Cucumber Chilled Soup
Ingredients: makes 4 portions
500 gr Beetroot, precooked but not in vinegar (or you can bake them yourself before hand)
1tbsp ginger grated
1/2 onion finely sliced
1 carrot chopped finely
2 celery sticks finely chopped (1/2 reserved for topping)
1 handful of basil leaves and stems
1 bay leaf
1 ltr water
1/2 stock cube vegetable
1 tsp honey
Salt and pepper
Begin by slicing all of your vegetables. In a pan lightly sauté your onion, celery, carrot and herbs with a drizzle of oil and a pinch of salt. Boil the water and add it to the sauce pan with the vegetables along with the stock cube. Let these simmer away for as long as you like but atleast 15 minutes. Then great 3/4 of the beetroot and turn the heat off. Let this cool slightly so it is easier to handle. In the meantime prepare your salted cucumber topping. Peel and finely dice the cucumber into a bowl, do the same with the celery. Stir together with a pinch of salt and put to one side.
When the beetroot mix is slightly cooler you can grate in the rest of the beetroot, honey and the ginger. At this point you are ready to blend it all together, adjusting the seasoning to your taste, but remember that when it cools down the flavour is slightly milder. Leave to cool for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.
Serve with ice cubes, drizzle of olive and the salted cucumber.