Salt in Britain: The History, Uses and Types of Salt in Britain

Salt in British Cooking

Different Types of Salt
Photo © RFB Photography

The British set up many of their salt-making sites on the coast and at inland brine springs at Cheshire and Worcestershire at the time of the Roman Conquest. Salt was a vital commodity to the Roman army, so the demand was met by setting up military salt works. Roman soldiers were partially paid in salt. In fact, the word soldier derives from "sal dare," which means to give salt. It's from the same Latin source as the word salary: "salarium." 

The History of Salt 

Ancient man got his salt from eating animal meat. As he turned to agriculture and his diet changed, he found that salt — probably in the form of sea water — gave his vegetables a nice salty flavor as well.

Scores of small salt-producing companies were operating around Middlewich and North Cheshire in England by the 18th and 19th centuries. Before today's more sophisticated salt production methods, Cheshire salt works produced two grades of salt: fine and common.

Then, by the 19th century, chemists discovered ways of using salt to make a whole range of new chemicals. Today, manufacturers claim there are more than 14,000 uses for salt. Most people probably think of it as simply a white granular seasoning found in a salt shaker on many dining tables. Salt is that, but it's also far more. It's an essential element in the diet of humans, animals and even many plants. Over the millennia, man has learned that salt helps to preserve food, to cure hides and even to heal wounds.

Britain's Main Salt Producers 

There are three main culinary salt producers in Britain today:

  • Maldon Sea Salt is known and loved by chefs around the world for its crystalline, delicately flavored flakes.
  • Halen Mon from Wales is made from seawater taken only from Anglesey. It's unadulterated by imported sea salt or rock salt.
  • Cornish Sea Salt is the newest kid on the salt block, made directly from the Atlantic Ocean around the Cornish coast.

Types of Salt Used in British Food

  • Coarse crystal sea salt is produced by evaporating seawater. It's perfect for use in a salt mill or for cooking.
  • Fine crystal sea salt is made by evaporating seawater. Anti-caking agents are added to prevent it from drying out. It's popular as a table salt and in cooking.
  • Maldon sea salt is considered to be the best sea salt available. The flaky crystals from Maldon in Essex have a strong flavor, so this salt is ideal if you're trying to reduce your salt intake — less is necessary to achieve the same taste. 
  • Fleur de sel or “flower of salt” is a moist salt. It's hand-harvested from salt pans. Fleur de sel has a wonderful bouquet from the naturally-occurring trace elements it contains. Famous brands include Sel de Guerande from France.
  • Rock salt comes from underground deposits formed thousands of centuries ago by the gradual drying up of inland lakes and seas. Rock salt crystals are large and hard, making them ideal for use in a salt mill.
  •  has added anti-caking agents to prevent it from clogging. This is the classic salt used in salt cellars and to add to recipes. Many salts today are bleached to change their yellowish color to white. If you want to avoid eating salts that have been messed around with, traditional sea salts are the best. 

    Specialist Salts

    • Sometimes called "posh salts," specialist salts not only add color and variety but they're stronger in flavor so less salt is necessary to achieve the same taste. Many specialist varieties of salt are available, like Maldon sea salt, but you can also make your own spiced salt by adding your choice of spice or seeds to the salt mill.
    • Prized for centuries in Hawaii, Alaea Red Salt from Kauai is reputed to have many healing and restorative powers. Tinged from volcanic clay that runs into the sea, this sea salt has a much mellower flavor than many other sea salts. 
    • Steenbergs Traditional Sea Salt is hand harvested from Algarve in southern Portugal. It's unprocessed and unrefined, and it captures the delicate flavors of the sea and its rich minerals.
    • Black salt, also known as rock salt or kala namak, is mined in central India. This finely ground, pinkish-gray salt is rich in minerals. It has a smoky, tangy taste that heightens the flavor in foods. It's recommended for people with high blood pressure and low-salt eating dieters because it doesn't increase sodium content in the blood. 
    • Himalayan crystal salt is pristine and natural, the cleanest salt available. It's reported to have remarkable healing properties as well. It has the most perfect geometric structure possible in rock crystals, which is the result of being compressed under the earth’s surface over millions of years.
    • Flavored salts are some of the oldest seasoning mixes. Celery salt is the classic of these, combining sea salt with the distinctive fresh flavor of celery. Classic uses for celery salt include Bloody or Virgin Mary cocktails. Other appealing flavors are cumin, coriander, or any variety of herbs and spices.

    Is Salt Bad for Us?

    Almost everything is bad in excess, and salt is, too. But salt is vital to our health. Each of us has about 250 grams of salt in our bodies and that salt works hard to keep us alive. The sodium in salt is an electrolyte that helps keep the fluid balance in blood cells. It also sends electrical impulses between the brain, nerves and muscles. As the oldest preservative known to man, salt also plays a vital role in protecting us from food poisoning. 

    If you are a normal, healthy individual, you probably don't have to cut your salt intake, but a low-salt diet under medical supervision may be advisable for those already suffering from high blood pressure. Health guidelines suggest that adults should eat no more than 6 grams of salt each day, which is roughly a teaspoonful.

    No one would put 6 grams of salt directly on their food, but it's the hidden salt that racks up your intake. As much as 75 percent of the salt we eat comes from processed foods like breakfast cereals, soups, sauces, ready meals and biscuits. So before you assume that you don't eat too much salt, take a look at the salt content of the prepared foods you're buying, then add that to how you use salt at home. Some foods that are high in salt don't actually taste salty because they also have lots of sugar in them, so checking salt content on the packages will give you an accurate idea of how much you're eating.