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Below the Salt

The following article was originally published in The Mundling Stick, the Newsletter of The Lion Salt Works Trust.


Benvenuto Cellini, made in Paris for Francis I of France, 1540-1543.
Gold, partly covered in enamel, with an ebony base.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

How can a phrase, below the salt, refer to one’s social standing, when it describes a seating position at dinner? Like many English sayings, its roots lie in the upper echelons of society. At dinner, the host would sit at the head of the table. The salt cellar would be placed within his reach; his most distinguished or most favoured guests would be seated at the top end of the table nearest to him.... “above the salt.” Less important guests would be seated further down the table…. “below the salt.” And the salt would be an important part of the dining experience, not only because of its use as a flavouring, but also because of its container. The salt cellar, or salière, would match the quality of the dining experience. At a basic level, salt would be served in a simple dish, and the fingers used to take a pinch and sprinkle it on food, as this in this black-glazed terracotta dish of 5th century B.C., Athens.

Salt Cellar Athens Louvre Ed524

Black-glazed terracotta salt dish 5th century B.C., Athens.
The Louvre, Paris.

Later, a spoon would be used, as a refinement, to keep the salt clean. Salt absorbs moisture from its surroundings, and has a tendency to clump together into one large lump. In this case, diners might have their own individual salt dish. The head of the household would preside over the distribution of salt at the dining table. The lump of salt was placed into a small dish, called by various names - open salt, salt cellar, Table salt. It was then broken up with a knife handle or other utensil and placed into smaller, individual salt cellars, often matching the larger one in design. Since it was such a precious seasoning, only small portions were given to each person at the table. The food was either dipped into the small individual salt cellars or was scooped out with small salt spoons and sprinkled over the food.

In the grandest houses, the salière could be an ornate work of art, made of precious metals and encrusted with jewels. Salt dishes were made in a great variety of shapes and styles, usually circular or oval, but also rectangular, boat-shaped, and polygonal. Most were made with four or three separate feet, or designed with a single pedestal foot. Decoration varied from a very plain reeded edge with plain body and hoof feet through to a heavy shell border with florally chased body and cast foliate feet. All salt cellars were made with either protective gold-gilt interiors or glass inserts, as salt is one of the few substances that can corrode silver.

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The Burghley Nef, silver-gilt salt cellar.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
In medieval France the word nef was applied to various types of boat-shaped containers.

Perhaps the finest salt cellars were made in the late 1600s, known as Trencher salts and made from a single piece of silver, often rectangular in form with cut-corners. Rich patrons commissioned ornate pieces, such as the Burghley Nef, made in France by an unknown goldsmith about 1528. The most magnificent example of this, is of course the saliera by Benvenuto Cellini, made of gold, ebony and enamel, and now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Two figures, a male and a female, recline upon an ornate base. She is the goddess of earth, he is Neptune, god of the sea. Below them are carved personifications of the times of the day and the four winds, and beside them sit two beautifully wrought receptacles: a miniature temple to house earth's peppercorns, and a boat to carry Neptune's salt. This exquisite work of art was made for François I of France in 1540-43.

From the 1920s, the Morton Salt Company of America managed to produce a salt which did not clump together, thanks to the use of anti-caking agents, leading to their advertising slogan for a free flowing salt “when it rains, it pours.” Advancements in anit-caking led to the use of the modern salt pourer: cheap, practical, and the delight of novelty shops which display as much imagination and variety as the old artisans, and which could be mass-produced at low cost. Compared with the magnificence of the old salt containers, perhaps our cheap and functional modern cruets suggest that we are all now  “below the salt………….”

Peter Solan, The Lion Salt Works Trust

Peter Solan is a member of The Lion Salt Works Trust. The Lion Salt Works Trust was originally formed to protect, restore and promote the salts works as the gateway to Cheshire's world changing salt heritage. The Trust continue this role with the museum by working to establish a salt making presence on the site. Anybody interested in getting involved with the Trust’s work please email them via ngkhunt12 (a) gmail . com.