Monday, October 3, 2011

The Salt Harvesters of Sečovlje

Being a bit of a foodie, I consider using the mass produced "Sifto" table salt akin to mixing root beer with your vintage single malt scotch. My most recent favorite salt has been the Himalayan red salt.
Each of these gourmet salts have different mineral compounds that give them their distinctive flavours.

The Aegean Sea in Slovania is about a 7 hour drive from Werbass. We stop overnight in the Croatian city of Osijek Croatia, a pretty, medium-sized city that was booked up for hotel rooms due to business conferences. Judging by the roadway's shiny new Porsche Panameras, Lambos, 7 series BMW wagons and so on, I have to ask myself what financial crisis for Europe? We end up in a pension-style hotel which is a private residence converted and it turns out to be one of the best hotels yet.

The motorways are all in excellent condition and speed the passage to the sea considerably -- as long as you have the 15 Euros per country to pay for the privilege of driving on them.

Slovania, not to be confused with Slovakia, Upper Slobovia or Lower Slobovia (OK, I made the last two up) is an alpine country that is known as a miniature Europe all wrapped into a tiny place. It is not part of the Balkan peninsula, but above it and sort of a separator to the Alps. I liken it to a Slavic country that is run by Germans, although the only thing the Germans do here is patronize the tourist industry. Slovania has been an official EU member since 2004 and is on the Euro and with that goes the higher prices. It is still about 30% cheaper than neighbours Italy and Austria.
Piran from the Croatian coast. Salt flats to the lower right.
Piran, where we stay, is an ancient well preserved Venetian city that has seen habitation back before the Romans. The Venetians ruled here for 500 years from the 13th century and then the Italians and Austrians before the Slovenians took control. Slovenia has but a small harbour bay behind the peninsula where Piran is situated. Here too, is the modern container port of Koper, with Italy on one side and Croatia on the other. Piran's streets are tiny with only electric vehicles having passage and cars being restricted to a new parking garage outside and a bus shuttle in.  It is a UN preserved heritage site.
We take a lovely hillside apartment overlooking the town, the sea and salt flats for $70 per night.
Salt flats
To access the salt flats you must check out of Slovania but not check into Croatia. An abandoned dirt road leads into what is now a bird sanctuary and museum. Salt was harvested from the sea from 1300 to the 1960 when they came up with more efficient methods.

Basically there is a fresh water river, the Dragonja, flowing in the centre of the series of dikes. Wealthy merchants built houses and the dike system and allowed the families to keep a cut of the harvest for payment. The season lasted from April to August and involved a lot of art and skill to extract the valuable white salt. The pans, where the evaporation of the dammed sea water took place, had a special earthen floor and a biofilm that was encouraged to grow to keep separate the earth. The procedure was very weather dependent and the harvesters kept their large bedroom windows open to monitor the weather -- a major storm could wash away a nearly ready inventory. The salt flour was the sought light fine "cream" of the salt crop, but it played a role in the biofilm's growth so could only be partially harvested. It fetched double the price. Other Mediterranean salt harvesters used a two stage pond process without the biomat. The final pure white salt was stored in the bins on the main floors of all the houses. Barges would come into the river and load up for shipment, mostly back to Venice.
Dragonja River through abandoned salt housing
 The 500 inhabitants used communal ovens, raised their children here, and when the season ended would head back to their villages and work the local farms, vineyards, and olive groves.

When the university student guide hears we were from Canada he insists we take some of the salt. (we were his only tour that day). I now have a 3 kg bag of gourmet salt to carry home.
In house salt storage bin
Salt, at one time, was so valuable that it was considered the same as money -- wars were started and countries invaded over it. Moderns might laugh at this. In two hundred years what will our descendants say about our quest for the prized black hydrocarbon liquid we call oil?

Salt Worker

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