The salt of life, Cadiz

This salt
in the saltcellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
I know
you won’t
believe me,
it sings,
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.

Poem by Pablo Neruda. Original in Spanish here

It is said that the people from Cadiz have a lot of salero, which in English it would be something similar as been a vivacity person or a person who shows panache. It is possible to hear also they are salaos or salty people, which means witty, charming or amusing. The thing is that actually in Cadiz there is a lot of salt.

The white mineral is the origin of the word “salary”. I always heard that in times of the Roman Empire the workers were paid with salt. It was so important and prized because it was the basic element to preserve the food. In the bay of Cadiz people say their salt is from before the Romans: even the Phoenician civilization extracted salt from their marshes.

In Modern times, once fridges and freezers were in all houses from all social classes, the salt production drastically decreased and this caused changes in the landscape of the bay. The countless salt marshes that covered almost all the surroundings were not worked anymore so the traditional landscape full of white hills disappeared. At least, there are still some companies working in the bay. For example there is one in Salina San Vicente where the salt is extracted in the traditional way, and another one in Salina Santa María of more intensive production.

All along the marshes there are traces and remains of a past when the salt was more present in the life of all the towns that are part of the bay. In San Fernando, Chiclana or Puerto Real we can see tide mills and casas salineras[1] that nowadays can be considered heritage in ruins. It is difficult that the popular architecture survives the passing of time and this heritage is expiring in their probably last years of their life. But still nowadays walking around Río Arillo, Salina Dolores or Isla del Trocadero is like walking through the scenery of the local history. I have been living in the by for a year and I still have engraved in my mind images like this:


Isla del Trocadero. Picture by Iván Ricoy, Genuine Andalusia.

But we can find salt not only in the coast of Cadiz but inland too. Very close to Grazalema, within the route of the White Towns, we can find the roman salt mines of Iptuci. I discovered them very recently thanks to Genuine Andalusia. I visited them in the mid of August, in the height of summer, just when all the pyramids of salt are waiting for been collected.

The origin of this salt mines are due to the waters that constantly emanate from underneath the ground in different locations of the town Prado del Rey, 100 km away from the coast, after crossing geologic materials rich in gypsums and salts. The result is a density of 28 grams of salt per liter of water. These waters have been worked since very old times and the present name is took from the old roman town of Iptuci, very close to this natural spring.

Nowadays is Jose who is in charge of the salt mine. He also guides whoever wants to visit it. He explained to me that when he inherited its use he decided to stop thinking about productivity and he went over the ecologic salt, much appreciated in the grand cuisine. It was a great decision.

The main working season is the summer because the evaporation rates are higher due to the heat. In these latitudes it can be extremely hot, so many times is necessary to work during the night. Despite of the nostalgia we can feel while visiting these places and listening stories about the traditional way of life, we must remember that these works are very hard, arduous and exhausting.

Jose kept talking and his words were building history because the vocabulary is also part of the heritage, the untouchable heritage. In the bay, the sea goes into the salt marshes through the estero, while in Iptuci the waters of the spring are redirected towards the calentadores. Then, in the coast the water will go through lucios and vueltas de periquillo before reach the cristalizadores, but the inland salt mines are structured in eras. The purpose in both cases is to make the water go through less deep pools to facilitate evaporation.

The lexical field is also large for the tools (rastrillo, vara, legón, cernedor, joraor, mazo…), the works (labrar, embronar, decostrar…) and kind of workers (hormiguilla, cargador, espumero…). Rastrillo means rake and labrar means to carve, but apart from those words, the rest of them are impossible to translate because they are extremely local words in relation to the world of the salt mines and salt marshes.

Maybe vocabulary is not easy to understand, but what everybody understands is about eating. The salt is essential in the gastronomy. In the bay its salt will be in their seafood (urchins, fried fish, fried anemone that we call espiguillas) and in the White Towns the salt will be used to elaborated their famous payoyo cheese, asparagus soup, baked lamb and a kind of thistle that we call tagarninas. As usual, the best thing we can do is to drink a good sherry that goes well with the different dishes. By the way, the idea of calling “flower” to the first softer layer of salt formed in the marshes comes from the sherry world, as their “flower” is the thick layer of yeast formed during the fermentation process of the manzanilla and fino wines.

The salt permeates the province of Cadiz within its landscapes, the vocabulary of its inhabitants, its food and taste, and maybe the personality of its population too. The salt is part of the history and this land as much as monuments, beaches and mountains. The living legacies we still preserve from this heritage are the few traditional salt mines and lakes that are in production and the knowledge of its workers. It is a pleasure to visit places like Iptuci and salt workers like Jose.

Thanks Ivan for insisting me on going there.


Roman salt mines of Iptuci, Manuel and me. Picture taken by Jose, the salt worker.

[1] Casas salineras were the houses where the head worker was living with his family.

5 thoughts on “The salt of life, Cadiz

  1. What a fascinating post! I loved not only learning about Cadiz, but also about the methods and specialized language that are associated with salt mining. How wonderful that a few people like José are carrying on this ages-old tradition. Thank you for making your readers’ world a bit bigger today!


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