Salt of the earth
Salt for a long time was one of the most important commodities available in the British Isles; we needed it for cheese-making, for the curing of meat and fish in order to preserve them for winter and of course baking our bread. Which is perhaps why it’s no surprise that Cumbria is full of salt-based history.
It’s long been thought that the Latin word salarium linked soldiers, their pay and salt but the exact link is not very clear. Modern sources now believe that the link is more to do with the fact that Roman soldiers were typically paid in coin and used a proportion of their salarium for the purchase of salt to be able season and preserve their food. Regardless of the truth of the matter the Roman custom came to define the custom of paying a sum of money for work to be done and ever since has given rise to expressions such as "being worth your salt".
Cumbria’s rich Roman history and the close proximity of Roman wall outpost, Milefortlet 21 (also known as Swarthy Hill), near to the best-preserved salt pan on our coast, leads me to believe that this was in some way linked to the origin of Cumbria’s long salt producing history. However, it turns out I was wrong (although to be fair I could also be right – I’m just lacking in any references or archaeology to be able to prove it!).
As the Roman Legions began to depart, leaving Cumbria in around A.D. 385, the Christian faith gradually became established in the area, based in and around small chapels set up by missionaries to the area, including those linked to the likes of Saint Ninian and Saint Kentigern – to this day there are various churches dedicated to both dotted around Cumbria.
After the Norman conquest in the 11th century the Barons turned to these long-established churches in a bid to try to exsert a civilising influence on the local populace as they tried to organise and settle the area, which was proving to be particularly difficult for them.
In order to help things along they began funding the numerous Abbeys and Priories that were to spring up in the ensuing years around the county, including Furness Abbey, Calder Abbey, Dacre Abbey, Holmcultram Abbey, Preston Patrick Abbey, which later relocated to Shap, Carlisle Catherdral Priory, Conishead Priory, St Bees Priory, Seaton Priory, Wetheral Priory, Cartmel Priory, Ravenstondale Priory, and Lanercost Priory. One of the earliest gifts given to many of these establishments was permission to construct saltpans and cut peat or turf to provide fuel for them.
This is where the 700-year history of (documented) salt production began in the county. The history of this can still be seen in some of the county’s place names to this today. Saltcoats at Holmrock, Salton at St Bees and the best preserved, Saltpans at Allonby. At Saltpans you can still clearly see the remains of the large seawater storage tank and clear brine pond. However, the largest and certainly the one that ran for the longest period was located at Bransty, in Whitehaven. In 1688 it was still described as having considerable importance, and that most of the salt they produced was exported to Ireland. As times changed and as Whitehaven developed the site on which the salt works sat was bought by Daniel Brocklebank and duly closed and knocked down to make way for a new shipyard, ending 700 years of salt making history in one fell swoop.
Well almost. Although not as well documented, the production of salt around Furness was clearly very important to the community and the remains of saltpans were still relatively recently visible on the Leven estuary but just not as commercially important as the ones on the Solway. It was on the Furness Peninsula and more specifically Walney, that the Cumbrian salt-making industry was to have one last hurrah.
In 1880 salt was discovered by chance whilst they were boring for coal, and by late 1890s Barrow salt works had become a fairly large operation, with over 50,000 tonnes being created each year, pumped from the wells near Bigger Village to salt pans located on what is now South Walney Nature Reserve. Unfortunately, this operation although large for the area couldn’t compete with the much greater production output of areas such as Liverpool, which meant that by 1909 the Barrow Salt Works, the last one in the county unfortunately closed its doors.
The one thing that hasn’t changed with salt however is its importance as a commodity, especially to chefs. One of the core skills to a professional chef is the ability to season food properly; when to add it and at what point are a true skill and the difference between a good chef and a brilliant one.
We still use salt for preservation and always in bread. But for this recipe we are going to use it in a slightly different way, to create a sealed dough that isn’t edible but allows the fish placed inside it to steam and be seasoned at the same time, hopefully leading to a tasty but tender dish.
This is a recipe that I’ve used a lot, especially whilst teaching cookery in a former job. This is a great dish for a dinner party too, as it can be prepared beforehand and allows you to express your artistic skills and create a true show stopping centre piece for the middle of the table.
Salt Crust Baked Sea Bass
Salt Crust Ingredients:
550g Table salt
350g Egg whites
250ml Cold water
Mix all the ingredients together by hand and knead for 3 minutes until you have a smooth dough wrap this in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour
1 large sea bass or 2 smaller ones
1 Bulb of fennel
Descale and remove any fins from the fish or ask your fishmonger to do this.
Slice the lemon and fennel up and place in inside the cavity of the fish.
If preparing two fish cut the dough in half and follow the instructions twice.
Take the dough and cut it so you have one piece that is a third in length and one that is two thirds in length
Roll out the smaller piece of dough so it’s a similar shape to the fish but with a 2inch border place the fish on top and use a splash of water and pastry brush to moisten the edge.
Roll out the larger piece and lay on top of the fish. Use your hand to tuck the dough tightly around the fish be careful at this point as you don’t want to have any holes in it. Trim around the fish so you have a 1-inch border. Keep the trim for decoration.
Now use your creative skills to decorate your fish as you see fit! When finished place in the fridge until required (don’t prepare it too early as it may become dry and over seasoned if left for more than an hour).
Remove from the fridge and paint with an egg wash for an extra golden finish
Place in a preheated oven at 200°C for 20 minutes. When finished cooking remove from the oven and let it rest for 3 minutes before opening,
Serve immediately with some seasonal potatoes and salad.