It is likely that it was the attraction of metals, fishing and opportunities for salt evaporation that brought in turn the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and eventually the Romans to Iberia’s southern coastal waters and land. In Spain there was once a Phoenician settlement that bore the name Malach meaning ‘salting place’ and throughout the east Algarve you find yourself stumbling over Roman saltings or salterns which were first created by ancient civilisations.
Salt, and in particular the flor de sal, was once Portugal’s white gold and essential to many economic treaties. However in modern times salt-making is not as lucrative as it once was, and the vast majority of us use salt from ‘salt mines’ or ‘non-solar evaporation vats’. Consequently many of Portugal’s salterns have fallen into decline and some have even been re-opened to the Atlantic. However you will still find commercially active salterns in the Algarve – Olhão, Castro Marim and Tavira.
Dr Dan Stanislawski – my guru on all things industrial and agriculture in the Algarve – lets me down on his analysis of salt production, as all he says is ‘Collection is a simple matter of scraping up the crusts of salt after the water has evaporated‘! Our own observations of the salterns have highlighted how much more complex it is than that! Seawater is drawn through channels and sluices into a patchwork of man made ponds known as salt pans. The ponds are closely monitored and depending on evaporation levels and salt density sea-water is added and removed over a long period of time. Eventually over the summer months the water is allowed to evaporate, and as it does most of the salt precipitates out on the bottom of the marsh or pan. This salt is later collected either by hand-held rakes or machinery as ordinary sea salt.
Some salt crystals however float on the surface of the water, forming a delicate crust. This is fleur de sel and is probably the best salt you can ever have! It can only be harvested by hand, and in Portugal a tool known as a borboleta is used. It is easy to determine which salterns are using traditional methods, as these ponds are much smaller to enable the workers to reach both sides easily with their rakes and borboleta. They are also usually inaccessible to tourists and cameras alike, but a couple of years ago we did find ourselves on a path which took us past this saltern.
The harvesting however is something we have not yet observed as we are never in Portugal in the summer months, but I have at least got a feel of what is involved from Fernando Ricardo’s evocative photographs of the salt pans in Tavira.
This is my July entry for the monthly #PastmeetsPresent blogging challenge, and a rather special one at that. As not only have I included photographs from previous decades, but as you can see below I have quite a few of the same saltpans on different days over the past couple of years. Making this a #PastmeetsPresent double.