One of the essential elements without which humans cannot survive, salt is a mineral that comes exclusively from the sea — either the seas we see before us today, or ancients seas that have long ago been absorbed by the earth leaving saline mineral deposits buried underground. Thanks no doubt to its vital nature, salt is one of the oldest seasonings adopted by man, because while we may depend upon it for our survival, our bodies do not have the capacity to manufacture or store much by themselves. Perhaps this is why we have also developed such a taste for it.
But salt is much more than a simple seasoning; it has the power to make our food sing with flavour and is essential for preserving foods to carry us over periods when harvests were done and food supplies run down. It is so essential that proximity to a source of salt was key to not only survival but also success, and knowing how to use it even more so. For example, the Basques of France and Spain built a huge advantage when they started salting fish in order to preserve it, which meant that their whaling fleets could travel further for longer than fleets from other nations who were still relying on air-dried fish. It also tasted better, and is still a staple of Basque cuisine.
This essential nature was also key in turning salt into a once valuable commodity. In Britain, the value of salt was once so high that it was akin to gold, and indeed salt was often exchanged if gold was not available. It became an important marker of status, so that even your position at the table “Above (or below) the salt” showed exactly where you stood in the social pecking order. In places such as France, India and Russia, salt has been the subject of taxation, leading usually to uprisings and revolutions. In China, it was produced under a state monopoly that existed from 119 BCE until just five years ago.
Here in Cambodia, evidence of a sea salt industry in areas along the coast such as Kampot, Kep, Ream and Srae Ambel can be traced back at least 1,000 years. The country also has some rock salt deposits in Kampong Speu, Battambang, Kampong Chhnang and other provinces, but these have not proved abundant enough to warrant exploitation other than for very local purposes in remote villages.
However, the industry here was not formally organised until after independence. In 1956, a cooperative was established in Kampot which in 1959 produced 80,000 tonnes of the essential mineral, more than double domestic requirements. It was not, however, possible to export the excess because of production methods that resulted in a poor-quality product.
Right now, producers in Kampot will be starting to prepare for the dry season ahead when conditions allow them to start raking the flat basins ready to be flooded with seawater that will slowly evaporate under the sun’s burning rays, leaving behind glistening crystals of sodium chloride, sea salt.
Anxiety is mounting this year following a dismal harvest last year that produced just 30,000 tonnes, 30% of what was needed to meet local demand, and a radical drop from 2014’s production of 270,000 tonnes (according to British Geological Survey data). By its nature, sea salt production through solar evaporation as practiced in Cambodia is highly vulnerable to climate variations, especially the kind that produces unseasonal rains that inhibit evaporation. A review of Cambodia’s annual production levels is like reading a micro climate map, with wild swings from year to year.
Notwithstanding that, Cambodia is starting to take tentative steps towards developing an export market for its salt. Two years ago, Confirel sent 20 tonnes to France, under a purchase from Le Guérandais, producers of one of the world’s premier salts, sel de Guérande.