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The Poetics of Salt, journey 1: Sal Sapit Omnia/Starter Culture

Still5 Min

Offere 2010, film still.

In the early 1900s, my Jewish great-grandfather Woolf Beinart (who was born in 1878) left the village of Obeliai in what is now north-eastern Lithuania and travelled, first by land, then by ship, to England, and onwards to South Africa. By the 1910s he was living in Malmesbury, a small town in the Western Cape. He became a trader and general dealer and, by the 1930s, he had started a new business called the Darling Salt Pans and Produce Company. He died in 1948 and his grave can be found in a semi-derelict cemetery on a hill outside Malmesbury, abandoned because the Jewish community had moved away.

In December 2009, my sister Rebecca and I took a container ship to Cape Town, trying to retrace Woolf’s journey. In our luggage, we took the ongoing artwork Starter Culture, a bread culture made from grapes from our home in England, which, along with equipment for making bread, was carried in a suitcase used by previous generations of our family on the same route between Europe and South Africa. Starter Culture operates as metaphor; the nature of the yeast culture changes from place to place and is repeatedly renewed with local flour and water. The repeating ritual of making and sharing the bread was an act of exchange, as the culture changed each time we added to it and new bread was made. The continual changing of the bread was representative of the way our family and others’ families shifted and changed as they migrated.
Starter Culture was also part of a re-invented ritual, referencing the Russian, Eastern European and Jewish practice called khlebosolny, from the Russian Khleb-Sol, meaning bread and salt, and a literal term for hospitality.1 Salt has a purifying and transformative role in Jewish culture, and, in the khlebosolny ritual, it has a sacred and protective function. Crossing the threshold to a new home is celebrated/marked with the sharing of bread and salt, the bread representing blessing, and salt the preservation of the blessing. Hallowed and dipped in the salt of the covenant, bread changes consumption to communion.2 Our making and sharing of bread echoed this ritual and had parallels with the prayers and rituals of pilgrims where the undertaking of a journey becomes a spiritual ritual.3

In the Cape Town archives, we discovered documents relating to Woolf Beinart’s ‘Darling Salt Pans and Produce Company’ which referred to a trade in salt based around the small town of Darling in the Western Cape and a tannery in Cape Town. After a series of journeys driving to dead ends in the Western Cape, we tracked down Burgerspan, the salt pan which Woolf had harvested salt from and transported it onwards to his shop and tannery. The salt pan inspired a series of artworks including Offere and Sal Sapit Omnia.

Still2 Min

Offere 2010, film still.

The Latin word Offere means ‘to bring across’, in the sense of an offering or gift.4 In this case, we used the idea of ‘bringing across’ as an attempt to communicate with ancestors, and to try to find their ghosts in a place where they had worked. We also wanted to bridge time and find a window into the past. We decided to follow the rituals of many cultures, whereby ancestors are made an offering, often of food and wine. Offere (2010) is a short film which mixes rituals with objects from different moments in time. In the film, we ‘feed’ our invisible ancestors a meal on the salt pan - a tureen of borscht and a loaf of black bread, food familiar to those who would have grown up in an Eastern European shtetl. Making the film on the salt pan, the objects and rituals lost their distinction as either authentic or imagined heritage. The salt became the metaphorical carrier between past and present, just as its material properties can both preserve and erase. 

Cape Town 23 Min

Sal Sapit Omnia, 2010

Cape Town 25 Min

Sal Sapit Omnia, 2010

In the work Sal Sapit Omnia (2010), Rebecca made pickled vegetables on the salt pan, constructing a ‘salt wagon’ which held everything she needed to undertake the pickling task. The form of the wagon referenced the Smous wagons of early Jewish migrants to South Africa, who were traveling pedlars, traversing remote rural areas to sell goods to farmers. Engaging with the local landscape and ecology of Burgerspan and other sites, Rebecca collected samples of salt and plants that survived on the saline edges of the pans. In this artwork, salt seems indexical to survival, both in the meaning of preservation and in relation to the delicate balance of ecology.

all images © Katy and Rebecca Beinart

Offere Recipes


1 cup coarse salt
20-21 cups water
Whole cucumbers

Boil the salt and water; wash the cucumbers, drain, pack them in hot jars in layers. After each layer put a few all-spice, bay leaves and a clove of garlic. When the water and salt have boiled add 1 teaspoon of saltpetre. Then put the liquid over the cucumbers in bottles. Seal down securely and turn the bottles updside down until cold.


10 large beetroots
2 ½ liters water
1.5 tsps salt
2 tbps sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
1 cup sour cream

Peel and Cut the beetroots and put in the pan with the water and salt, and boil. Simmer for around an hour. Then add sugar and lemon juice and allow to cool. Serve cold with sour cream stirred in.(My grandad used to make a different version of this which had onion and lentils added to it, and it was served warm with sour cream. It can also be served with boiled potatoes, and with beaten egg stirred in. There are many variations!)

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

R.E.F. Smith and David Christian, Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of Food and Drink in Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1984.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Ruth Friedman Cernea, The Passover Seder: An Anthropological Perspective on Jewish Culture. Lanham, MD: University Press of America 1995, pp. 79, 85.

Go to footnote reference 3.

Simon Coleman and John Elsner, Pilgrimage Past and Present: Sacred Travel and Sacred Space in the World Religions. London: British Museum Press 1995, pp. 25-27.

Go to footnote reference 4.

‘Offer (v)’, Online Etymology Dictionary: <> [accessed 10 January 2018].

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