There’s an old Sicilian folk tale of a king that had three daughters. One year for his birthday one daughter gave her father gold, another daughter gave the king diamonds, while the third gave her father a sack of salt from Marsala. The king was so disappointed in his third daughter that he banished her to her room. The household staff (that loved the unpretentious daughter) thereafter began preparing the king’s meals without salt. After a week, the monarch couldn’t stand the blandness of his food. “Insipido,” he cried, “my daughter was right. Salt from Marsala is as precious as gold or diamonds.”
There are many different grades of salt and it is the heavily processed, iodized table salt that is the enemy to blood pressure. Many of the natural salts contain the essential minerals that our bodies need and sea salt is an altogether different animal, or in actuality, mineral. In the area around Marsala, shallow pools known as ‘salina’ have been constructed to take advantage of the ideal conditions to harvest salt. Since the Mediterranean only rises and falls by an inch or so in the area, Sicilians use the sun and the wind to concentrate the level of salt in the water, following the same practices as they have since the 14th century.
The salt-making process begins by filling the outermost salina with fresh sea-water. The constant coastal breeze and the hot Sicilian sun provide the energy necessary in this part of the process. As the water evaporates, the remaining brine solution becomes more and more concentrated. Every few days during the harvesting season (from June to September), the increasingly salty water is pumped into another salina nearer to the land. For centuries, windmills have been used to pump the salt water from one pool to the next and many of which are still standing. Eventually, the briny water gets so concentrated that a crust of salt crystals begins to form on the surface. Further drying is aided by the strong sirocco. This hot wind blows across the Sahara Desert to then blast the southern coast of Sicily, removing the last of the water, leaving the salt ready for harvesting.
In the collection process, leather-skinned, sinewy men, working in the intense heat of the sun, pile the salt crystals into mounds two to three feet high. This helps the salt dry more thoroughly and makes it easier for the workers to load the salt into their wheelbarrows. Then once the salt is completely dry, it is shoveled into the barrows which are pushed to the base of a conveyor-belt that rises and collects the ‘white gold’ into dunes of salt ten feet high and 40 feet long. To protect the finished stacks from any rain that may fall, a makeshift roof of loose terracotta tiles is then laid over them.
It is estimated that one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of working saline can produce around 100 tons of salt per year. That requires a lot of shoveling, but it is Mother Nature who does most of the work. The hand-harvested Marsala sea salt from the rich waters of the Mediterranean is a pure and clean and beloved by chefs around the world as an artisanal finishing salt, some of which sells for as much as $12.50 for an eight-ounce container – it truly is precious!