The Slovenia Times

Sun, Sea and Salt

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It's seven in the morning and already the white crystals on the sea surface seem blindingly bright to the unaccustomed eye, with the perfectly cloudless sky promising another dry and hot day. While most people are still sleeping, the salt makers are already hard at work. The Secovlje Saltworks are located only a few kilometres from Portoro┼ż. They encompass 650 hectares and are part of the Secovlje Saltworks Nature Park, which is a wildlife sanctuary home to more than 260 different bird species. The reserve consists of two areas: Fontanigge, with the Saltworks Museum and Lera, where salt is still produced in the traditional way. After being abandoned for many years, the Saltworks were recently bought by one of the Slovenian mobile phone companies. Things are now taking a turn for the better, at least for part of the 30 square kilometre area of small dams, channels, bridges, gates and pools. A factory under the sun In the old days, thousands of people moved to the salt pans for the salt-harvesting season. They lived in the salt workers' houses, which now lie in ruins. The housewives baked bread in a common oven and stamped the loaves so that they would know whose was whose. They collected snails, and ate shrimps, fish and shellfish. Salt-harvesting was once a respectable and lucrative business. The salt pans are factories under the sun, where a successful harvest depends upon the capriciousness of Mother Nature. Thus the qualities of self-discipline and perseverance are important. Perseverance is especially necessary when the work day starts at six in the morning and ends late in the evening, and when you are worried about the weather not cooperating. In the salt pans, there is always enough work to do throughout the year - when the last salt is harvested in the autumn, the preparations for the next season begin. The pools need to be prepared and the dams repaired. But the most important thing is the preparation of petola, a mixture of clay, salt, gypsum and algae, which covers the bottom of the pool and gives the salt a sweet and sour taste. Although the water in the pools appears to be still, it actually circulates constantly. When it reaches a salinity level of 25%, it is ready to be raked. Every salt-maker has a designated number of pools, and when the sun begins to blaze, they have to rake half of them each day. Today, the former economic use of the pans has been replaced by the area's current role as a nature reserve and place of cultural preservation. Growing awareness that the salt-making techniques were part of Slovenia's cultural heritage led to the efforts to preserve this important tradition. Also the designating of the area as a nature reserve has meant that many rare and special species of plants and animals are now protected. Furthermore, the sea salt currently produced is considered a delicacy by gourmets. A long salt-making tradition The first mention of the salt pans dates back to Roman times. By the time that Piran was conquered by the Venetians, more than 700 years ago, there were as many as 1200 crystallization pools. In the middle of the 14th century, salt-makers from the island of Pag brought the formula for "a magic carpet" - the petola - with which they could produce pure white salt. The salt of Piran was of high quality and was expensive. The salt pans stimulated the development of tourism to Portoro┼ż. More than a hundred years ago, there was even a local health resort with mud from the salt pans - the so-called fango and the aquamadre. During the first half of the 20th century there were as many as 440 salt-makers' houses. After 1950, however, people began moving away as salt-making became less lucrative. Currently, the new owner is renovating the area's rails, dams, buildings, huts and other infrastructure. Although it was once the desire to make money, today it is a love of tradition that motivates the workers while they are collecting the salt, shovelling it into carts, transporting it to the warehouses and unloading it under the hot sun.. In the dilapidated workers' houses, long-deserted, there are fireplaces overgrown with weeds and crumbling staircases leading nowhere. The squawking of seagulls, the bubbling of petola and the stories of old salt-makers are today an inspiration for painters, poets and for those who find their sanitized, air-conditioned workplaces unsatisfactory. A Living Park The Secovlje Saltworks Nature Park preserves not only the rich salt-making tradition, but also the habitats of many plant and animal species native to the area.. Not only the salt fields, but also the abandoned houses are a favourite home of the area's birds, reptiles and bugs. In the sea near the salt pans are shoals formed from sediment from the Dragonja River. These are used by many migratory birds as a place to rest during their spring and autumn journeys. The clay and sand banks, where tides cause large variations in the water temperature, are home to many diverse species and provide an abundant source of food for birds. The birds also feed on creatures in the salt pools and on the banks of Dragonja River. The area is home to many interesting grasses, bushes and flowers. Among the animals, the park's birds are the most remarkable. There have been 282 different species of bird identified in the park. This variety is a result of the many different nesting places made possible by the range of landscapes in the park lands, and also the rich sources of food there. Bird lovers can find doves, swallows, hens, swamp birds, singers, flamingos, owls and many others. The water is populated by turtles, crayfish and crabs; while the land is home to mice, hedgehogs, lizards, bats and one species of non-venomous snake. The Salt Salt, "the only commonly eaten rock," is a mineral with a taste that is immediately recognizable. Salt is an essential nutrient, as it regulates the balance of fluids within the body. Edible salt can be refined or unrefined. Sometimes salt is iodised, since iodine is an essential nutrient for humans and many people, especially in certain countries, have a diet lacking in iodine. Salt is obtained by evaporating sea water or by mining deposits in rock. Sea salt is used mostly for cooking and cosmetics, while rock salt usually goes for industrial uses (such as manufacturing pulp and paper or setting dyes in textiles and fabric). But salt has one more quality which made it very important over the course of history. It can be used to preserve food, a characteristic which formerly made it a vital and strategically important good. Whenever there is such a highly valued item, which cannot be found just anywhere, whoever controls the source gains for himself great wealth and power. From the second century BC, when the earliest case of taxation of salt was recorded in China, until the end of the 19th century, salt was an important factor in national economies - and wars. This might remind Slovenians of one of Slovenia's remarkable literary works, Fran Levstik's Martin Krpan. This folk tale includes many allusions to how the Slovene people perceived themselves at that time: Krpan, the hero of the story, irritated the authorities by smuggling salt, but in the end saved the Viennese court from the evil bandit.

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