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The Poetics of Salt, journey 3: Salinas/Saltfish

Image 3 16 Still From Saltworks

Salinas, Figueira da Foz, 2013.
(Still from film).

This journey begins in Brixton Market, with a conversation I had with a stallholder, José Cardoso, who sold salt cod. José’s customers live in Brixton, but their heritage in the Caribbean, Portugal, Greece or Italy is also connected through a shared history of salt, and the dishes they make with the salted cod he sells. With European colonial expansion, salt became a very valuable commodity. It could be used to preserve food for long journeys of exploration and the subsequent colonization of overseas territories. Salt cod has become part of people’s cultural tradition and diet through seafaring and the slave trade,1 providing a food supply on long journeys, a commodity to trade with, and a source of protein for the slave labour that populated the new colonies.2 Salted cod was used to feed slaves working on the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and in West Africa cured cod could be used to purchase slaves.3]

The current population of Brixton, which includes communities that have their origins in the Caribbean, Africa, Portugal and other European countries, reflects the trade triangle that once existed between Europe, the Americas, including the Caribbean, and Africa. In postcolonial England, migrants have arrived from former colonies, bringing with them traditions which often seem to come from abroad but are in fact intrinsically linked to an earlier phase of British history.

From the fifteenth century onwards, Portugal was producing and trading salt cod using salt from the rapidly developing salinas (saltworks) up the coast from Lisbon.4 After Spain annexed Portugal, and the subsequent long wars with the English over control of fishing territories, trade lessened, but Portuguese salt was still seen as essential to the fishing trade and, in around 1830, the trade revived.  Ships set off with their salt supplies from Aveiro, Figueira and Lisbon, catching and salting the fish on board, and bringing it back to be dried on open air racks.5 Salt, and salted cod, became a vital factor in European Colonial expansion and the slave trade.6

Salt was already an important commodity in parts of Africa, where it was shipped inland as slaves were brought to the coast.7 Salt was a crucial item in the trade for slaves with Europeans who had begun to arrive on the coast seeking labour for their new colonies. European colonists recognized the potential of poorer quality salted cod as a cheap source of protein for their slaves.8 They also realized the potential of the Caribbean islands as a closer source of salt production for the burgeoning North American salt cod industry.

By 2013, when I visited Portugal, salt cod was being supplied by Norwegian and other Scandinavian fisheries, and the once-huge Portuguese ‘White Fleet’ of fishing ships was barely in operation.9 In the 1920s, Clarence Birdseye had begun to experiment with freezing fish in the United States, and at the same time filleting machinery was introduced in New England. The market for salt cod in the US was steadily declining. Frozen fish fillets began to be a more popular product as they could be transported easily.10 From the 1930s onwards, these technologies, which massively reduced the demand for salt cod, together with the appearance of industrialized salt-winning processes that could provide higher salt production at lower cost, led to a crisis in the Portuguese salt industry.11 By the 1980s, when Portugal became an EU member, subsidies encouraged people to exchange seasonal salt production for an alternative continuous aquacultural or agricultural activity. The roughness of the work itself, not compensated by the revenues obtained and the lack of incentives given to continue this activity, further contributed to salinas abandonment. In the last 20 years, Portuguese salt culture suffered a further decline, with a reduction of more than 50 per cent in active (i.e. salt-producing) salinas, generally resulting from the transformation or complete abandonment of salinas, leaving them exposed to deterioration.

In 2013, I made a journey north from Lisbon, traveling along the coast, visiting three active salinas at Rio Maior, Figueira da Foz and Aveiro, later returning to Lisbon to take up an art residency and produce work for an exhibition. At Figueira, the active salinas are combined with a heritage site and ecomuseum. The guide described the differences between traditional and industrial processes of salt production. The industrial process, where water is forced through rocks, takes only five hours and uses the material only once; the salt must then be cleaned, and chemicals added to speed up the crystallization process. The traditional production method uses a natural filtration system in which the saltwater is let into beds slowly, increasing in salinity as the beds get shallower and the water more concentrated. Over a five to six day period natural evaporation occurs and salt crystals form. The salt water which is fed through the beds is re-used four or more times.12

Image 3 8 Salted Paper Print

Salted paper photographic print,
Plataforma Revolver, Lisbon 2013.

The central element of duration in the natural filtration method was made clearly evident when visiting the sites - each stage of the process could be seen, but the change of state from water to salt was so slow it was almost invisible. I wanted to reflect this slow change of state in the subsequent artwork I made. I began by filming the slow movement and formation of salt crystals on the surface of the salt pans and taking a series of photographs of the salinas on a stills camera using real film.

The earliest type of photographic printing was made using paper soaked in salt, which was then painted with silver nitrate and exposed to the sun (with a negative, making a contact print). In Lisbon, I used this historical method to produce prints of the images I had taken of salinas in Figueira, Aveiro and Rio Maior.13 Here, salt was located as both an image and the constructor of the image.

In another artwork made in Lisbon, looking for a material to represent the architecture of the salt pans, I found old discarded pallets, which connect to the trade and mobility in the salt stories from my starting conversations in Brixton Market, with José Cardoso. For the installation Saltworks, I built three walled pools out of the pallets each with a small table for the salt I collected from the salinas to sit on. Once completed, I filled the pools with water collected from the river Tejo.14 The sculptures enabled viewers to ‘see’ the process taking place on the salinas; the slow movement of salt from liquid to solid. Indexically, salt has a physical relationship to what it signifies, the sea or salinas.15 Like the salinas process, where salt becomes an index of the sea, the Saltworks become a scaled-down version of the poetics of a continuous change of state, the journey from one to another. The crystallization of salt on water can therefore be conceived of as indexical to the journey as a process of discovery.

Image 3 15 Saltworks

Saltworks mixed media installation
Plataforma Revolver gallery, Lisbon 2013.

Salted Cod, Bacalau Espiritual​

Ingredients

1 lbs. bacalhau “salted cod” 4 cups water
3/4 cup carrots, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
1 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1 cup shredded cheese (Any type of cheese will work)
1 cup fresh cream
1/2 cup flour
3 slices bread
1 cup hot milk for soaking the bread.

Method

  1. Prepare the cod by soaking it in a bowl of cold water for at least 12 hours and up to 2 days, changing the water three times every 4 to 6 hours.
  2. Once the cod has finished soaking, remove the skin and bones mince the fish finely.
  3. Soak the pieces of bread in a bowl of hot milk and set aside.
  4. Add the olive oil to a pan over medium heat and saute the garlic, onions, and 1/2 cup sliced carrots until they are softened.
  5. Break apart the soaked pieces of bread with your hands and add all of it to the pan.
  6. Finally, add the fish to the pan and stir it well to combine. Turn off the heat.
  7. Prepare the white sauce by melting the butter in a saucepan and add the flour.
  8. Cook, stirring constantly, then slowly add the milk and nutmeg, whisking constantly to avoid lumps.
  9. Continue cooking over medium heat until the sauce thickens.
  10. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  11. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix half of the white sauce well with the fish and spread the mixture in a baking dish.
  12. Cover the dish with the remaining sauce, and finally with a remaining layer of the fresh cream. Then sprinkle the top of the dish completely with the cheese.
  13. Bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the top is melted and browned.
  14. Let it cool for 5-10 minutes.
  15. Decorate with the rest of the sliced carrots and chopped cilantro t serve.

all images © Katy Beinart

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. London: Vintage 1999, pp. 91, 257.

Go to footnote reference 2.

ibid. pp. 82-3 & 89.

Go to footnote reference 3.

ibid. pp. 81-2.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History. London: Vintage 2003, p.121.

Go to footnote reference 5.

Neves, Renato, ‘Portuguese cod fishing - epic and myth’ in Renato Neves, Theodora Petanidou, Rui Rufino and Sonia Pinto, Alas: all about salt - Salt and salinas in the Mediterranean. Lisbon: ALAS 2005, pp.37-41, at p.38.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Kurlansky, Cod, pp. 82-3 & 89.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993, pp.102-3.

Go to footnote reference 8.

Kurlansky, Cod.

Go to footnote reference 9.

Kurlansky, Cod, p. 180; The White Ships (A Frota Blanca) (National Film Board of Canada, 1967), downloaded from

[accessed 16 June 2014]; Priscilla Doel, ‘Port O’Call: Memories of the Portuguese White Fleet in St. John’s, Newfoundland’, Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s 1992, referenced in ‘The Portuguese White Fleet’, downloaded from

<http://www.whitepinepictures.c...>[accessed 16 June 2014]; Priscilla Doel, ‘The White Fleet and the Iconography of Control’, in Victor M.P. Da Rosa and Carlos Teixeira (eds), The Portuguese in Canada: Diasporic Challenges and Adjustment. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2009, pp. 37-52, at p.45.

Go to footnote reference 10.

Kurlansky, Cod, p. 136.

Go to footnote reference 11.

Lear, W. H., ‘History of Fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic: The 500-Year Perspective’, Journal of Northwest. Atlantic. Fishery Science, Vol.23: (1998) pp. 41–73, p. 65; Carolina M. Rodrigues, Ana Bio, Francisco Amat and Natividade Vieira, ‘Artisanal salt production in Aveiro/Portugal: An ecofriendly process’, Saline Systems 7 (2011), p. 2. available at

<http://www.salinesystems.org/c...>[accessed 17 June 2014]

Go to footnote reference 12.

Voice recording, Figueira da Foz Ecomuseu, Beinart, ‘Salted Earth’, blog, 3 September 2013.

Go to footnote reference 13.

Beinart, ‘Salted Earth’, blog, 3 September 2013.

Go to footnote reference 14.

Author’s personal journal, September 2013.

Go to footnote reference 15.

Rosalind Krauss, ‘Notes on the index: Seventies art in America, Part 1’, October, 3 (1977), pp. 68-81, at p.70.

Katy Beinart

Katy Beinart is an interdisciplinary artist whose art works include installation, public art and performance. After studying architecture, Katy has practiced as an artist since 2004, combining art and architecture to make artwork in the public realm. She has recently completed a practice-based PhD at the Bartlett, University College London, which brings together her interests in public art practices, urban regeneration, migration - and salt. For more information about her practice and background, see http://www.katybeinart.co.uk