Salt From the Sea

A native of Massachusetts, JOHN MARTIN took his A.B. in French at Yale University and spent one of his undergraduate years studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. Since graduation in 1958 he has lived mainly in Greece and has recently completed a novel.

TAKING salt from the sea is an unusual occupation. I did it for the first time in the summer of 1960, when my wife and I were living on the island of Rhodes. We had rented a three-room stone farmhouse, whitewashed, as arc nearly all Greek village houses, in Pefkes, on the southern coast of the island.

Pefkes (“Pines” in Greek) was not really a village. More precisely, it was a settlement of widely spaced houses, glistening white, separated by vineyards and orchards, and set in a narrow, sandy plain, which lay between the mountains and the sea.

A strong breeze blew steadily in Pefkes, whistling tirelessly through the groves of pines, making one cool just by the sound of it. But the same summer wind grew icy in the winter, and at the start of the November rainy season ihe village was left vacant, save for an old hermit who did not mind the cold enough to avoid it.

Pelkes was important because of its vineyards and orchards, which provided, for those who owned land, a small but regular cash income. The vineyards produced a single crop of red and white grapes each year, most of which were bought up for a song by the wine company that has a monopoly on the island. The orchards yielded figs and almonds, crops which found a ready market. The orchards of the few wealthy families distinguished themselves by their pomegranate trees. Pomegranates were considered great delicacies, especially by people who had none on their land.

When we look a house, we had to take over its farmland, also. The landlord assumed that this was what we were renting, and we paid a price equal to the value of the grapes, almonds, and figs that would be ours at the end of the summer. It came to about fifteen dollars a month, which indicates the scale of the economy. He threw in the house without further charge. We could not complain, nor could we be openly pleased, for we soon learned that by Pefkes standards the rent we paid was steep.

The people in Pefkes lived by a relatively simple economy. As little money as possible changed hands. They paid for nothing that work alone could provide. It was not unusual for a family to make a laborious, two-day trip to one of the villages high in the mountains to buy wheat, for baking bread, at a small saving.

We had to be careful with our money, in order not to lose face with these people. An unwritten code existed which we sensed immediately. By it, anyone who spent money needlessly was a fool, unless he was extremely wealthy, which we were not. These people would do anything for a person they respected; nothing for one they did not. Once you lost their respect, you never got it back. And no one likes to be thought a fool.

An example of extreme frugality in Pefkes was the collecting of sea salt. Some time passed before we became aware of it. We used to buy our salt in blue packages which sold for about a nickel and were made up on the island. It wasn’t especially good salt — not very strong, and usually damp — but, as far as we knew, it was the only kind available. The idea of making our own salt, of course, never occurred to us.

It was August before I discovered the possibility, and rather by chance, at that. I learned then that sea salt, carefully made, was highly prized, and rightly so, because the quality was good. It was a commodity available in unlimited quantity to people living along the coast. They frequently traded it in the inland villages for wheat, plums, apricots, and peaches. Even sponge divers accepted it in exchange for their sponges. Collecting sea salt was not easy, but it was worth the trouble.

I HAD begun to spearfish that summer, and had got the habit of going down to the sea early in the morning, shortly after sunrise, when the fish were still feeding. I would stay in the water a few hours (the Aegean is too warm in the summer to give you a chill) and return home before the sun was high.

Spearfishing was merely an excuse for exploring the coastline underwater. There was no shortage offish, but I rarely caught one. ! did not need to. Stefanos, a fisherman friend of ours, used to give us all the fish we could eat, simply out of hospitality to us as foreigners.

With the exception of the beach area, the shore at Pefkes was craggy. It had a peculiar type of rock which I have not seen elsewhere, deceptively sharp, so that you could easily cut yourself while swimming, just by brushing against it. It was volcanic in origin, sandy-colored, with a brittle, crusty texture like the clinker that forms in a coal furnace. Craters of varying sizes covered the rock’s surface, and the sides of each crater ended in a spiny, jagged rim. It was on the rim that you cut yourself. The rock didn’t look so sharp, but I soon learned not to walk on it with bare feet.

The water was transparent, but the depths were murky, and the holes in the underwater rocks completely black. All the colors — the blues, the whites, and the browns — had a cloudiness in the morning which they lost later in the day, when the sun was overhead. None of the contours of rocks, sand, or vegetation were sharply defined. Even the fish moved slowly, meditatively, pulling now and then on bits of moss that grew on the rocks. If 1 moved discreetly, they hardly took notice of me. Sometimes I would send my harpoon knifing down among a school of fish, just to shake them briefly out of their trance.

After two hours I would come out, relaxed and almost always empty-handed. My fishing eye was a source of amusement in Pefkes.

On my way back from the sea one August morning, I stopped at the farmhouse which served as the general store for Pefkes to pick up a box of soap powder and a package of salt. I had them both in a net bag as I walked by the house of our fisherman friend, Stefanos. His wife, Maria, was out in the yard in the shade of a tree, picking pebbles out of a mountain of lentils which she was getting ready for lunch. I stopped on the path to talk with her. All went well until she spied the package of salt.

“How much did you pay for it?” she asked.

“A drachma and a half,” I admitted. Maria was horrified.

“Is it good?” she asked. I shifted the bag around nervously in my hand.

She didn’t wait for me to answer, but called for Stefanos to come outside. He paused in the doorway, squinting against the sun. His skin, which had a tan all year round, had grown a shade darker in the last month. Maria kept giving me disapproving looks. My embarrassment increased.

“You see that he’s bought a package of salt,” said Maria, pointing out the package to her husband.

Instead of getting annoyed in his turn, as I half expected, Stefanos seemed amused. To my surprise, and relief, he took my part. “What do you want him to do?” he admonished Maria. “You know he’s an American, and he’s lived in Boston. That’s a big city. He doesn’t know how to make salt. He can come with me the next time I go, in two days. You’ve got to learn these things before you know anything about them.”

He turned to me and said, “There isn’t much to learn. Making salt is hard work. It means carrying a lot of sea water, but there’s nothing tricky to it. I’m going out with the boat the day after tomorrow. Come along if you want to.”

I had often gone fishing with Stefanos in his boat. He was good at it. Several times, when the sea was rough and the boats near us caught nothing, Stefanos pulled in his usual three or more kilos of fish. He knew exactly where the floor of the sea was rocky or sandy, characteristics which change in the twinkling of an eye when the boat drifts a bit with the current. (Fish chase the hooks on sandy ground, but hooks catch on rocks, and the fish steal the bait. Still, the fish live in the rocks, and you must be near them. It is a matter of close calculation.) Stefanos was seldom mistaken. With the help of a few landmarks on shore, he knew exactly where the fish would bite.

I was not very accomplished myself. I used a lot of bait, but caught few fish. Someone less patient might have become irritated with me, but Stefanos didn’t mind. He made up for my bungling by catching as many as five fish at a throw.

We worked with nylon lines, but no poles. Each line had ten hooks, baited with tiny shrimps. Stefanos had two pieces of cow horn attached to the rail like oarlocks, and we let our lines out over them. Stopping the fish from nibbling away the bait was a touch-and-go proposition, demanding the quickness of a boxer’s jab. Stefanos had it.

If he was willing to have me along when he went for salt, I was ready to go. When he explained to me that I could cut his work in half, it was settled.

Two days later we met outside his house at six thirty in the morning. The sun had just risen, and the sand underfoot was still cold from the night. We cut across country, toward the bay where his boat was riding at anchor, past houses where people were beginning to wake and light their wood fires to boil coffee.

The dark green of grape leaves dotted the ground. I had once asked Stefanos how the vines got sufficient nourishment to grow. The earth was sandy. Half the wells in Pefkes contained water so salty it could not be drunk. “That’s how it is” and a shrug of the shoulders were all the answer I got. A superfluous question, as far as he was concerned.

Stefanos was in his usual fishing outfit — blue shirt, baggy pants, and felt hat in the shape of a cone which was rounded off at the top. He had once owned two sailing ships, but had lost them in a storm. He had tried to build new ones, but the governor, who loved trees, had never let him cut down the necessary timber. Trees are scarce in Greece, and regulations concerning them are strict. Stefanos had used up his capital waiting for a change in policy. As a result, he was left with only an open dinghy, fifteen feet long.

The sea was usually calm in the morning, but that day it was choppy. We set out for a small island of bare rock not far from shore. The wind was strong, but since the distance was short, we didn’t put the sail up. Stefanos rowed standing up, facing forward. He leaned his weight into every stroke, pushing the oars away from him. The oars were long and heavy with thick handles, which he gripped loosely. He flicked them in a half turn with each stroke, a motion that made the rowing seem effortless. We moved along at a fair clip, waves knocking against the bow.

We anchored the boat in the lee of the island, well out of the current. The water was a light, transparent green where it lapped against the rock, deepening to a chilly blue farther out, where the wind stirred up whitecaps. I watched the anchor strike bottom, sending up a cloud of mud and causing a school of silverfish to dart for cover.

The rock was the same volcanic kind which lined the shore, its surface riddled with shallow, jagged craters. Stefanos jumped from the boat, looping the bow rope around a protruding fist in the rock. He yelled for me to hand over the two large empty cans stored in the bow. Before I got out, he had me exchange my new sneakers for an old and battered pair of his. Later, when I saw how the rock ripped into them, I was thankful.

Stefanos was soon at work, filling his tin at the water’s edge, carrying it back toward the middle of the rock, and dumping the water into one of the craters. I followed his example. The tins held about four gallons each, but when I filled mine to the top, water splashed all over me because the footing was so uneven. The sneakers, several sizes too big, were soon soaking and very slippery. Once I was not careful about where I stepped, and my feet slid from underneath me. I broke the fall with my hand and got a deep gash across the palm.

We worked steadily, making trips back and forth from the water’s edge, filling every one of the craters in turn. It was heavy going, even with a half-filled tin. Some of the craters required ten or fifteen buckets of water before they were full. Those located in the middle of the rock were a good distance away, and they were the largest. Stefanos, more accustomed to the work than I, seemed to get less tired. We did not stop to rest, nor did we say much to each other. We had to finish before the sun rose too high. Otherwise, we ran the danger of sunstroke. Two and a half hours went by before we splashed the last remaining crater full with water.

For the rest of the day I did nothing but lie around. I was thoroughly exhausted. One summer, I had had a job loading trucks, but it had been a long time since I had done any heavy carrying.

It took the better part of a week for my muscles to unstiffen. In the meantime, we left the salt water to evaporate in the craters. After five days, crystals of salt began to form. We watched them carefully. The crystals had to be hard enough so that they would not dissolve or break up as we gathered them. Once the salt fully dries in the craters, it is no longer clean and retains an unpleasant mineral taste from the rock. It has to be taken out when the crystals are well formed but still moist. If the correct moment passes by, it means beginning again, carrying buckets of water, and refilling every one of the craters.

Evaporation stopped when the sun went down, so we did not have to watch the salt at nighttime. But then there was a more treacherous hazard, thieves. Stefanos had once had his salt stolen, and he took no chances. Our salt began to crystallize at the time of the full moon, when the danger from thieves was greatest. Salt can be collected in the bright moonlight with the greatest of ease.

Stefanos insisted on standing watch in his boat on the last two nights before we gathered the salt. I had an interest, too, in seeing that all our hard work did not go for nothing, and I went with him. On the second night, our boat was moored near the shore, in the protection of a small inlet. Not long after one o’clock, we heard the sound of an outboard motor approaching. We waited for the boat to come nearer, speculating on who might be in it. Before long, it came into view and pulled in alongside the rock. The two men aboard cut the engine and anchored the boat. They talked in low tones that barely reached us across the water. One of them jumped ashore. The other threw him four baskets for collecting the salt. Stefanos recognized them. They were brothers from a nearby village, Lardos.

Stefanos stood up and began rowing out to the rock, his cigarette between his lips. He rowed quietly, and there was enough wind to cover the sound of the oars as they dipped in and out of the water. The men did not notice us until our boat crossed a patch of moonlight, midway to the rock. As we entered the light, they spotted us. Without a word, they threw their baskets quickly back in the boat, took up anchor, started the engine, and headed back in the direction from which they had come.

Stefanos stopped rowing. He stood where he was, holding the oars, as we drifted slowly out of the moonlight. He watched the men until their boat disappeared. He did not mention them again, except to mutter curses under his breath.

The following morning, we came back to the rock for the last time to gather our salt. It took us less than an hour to finish, going from crater to crater, our salt piling higher and higher, making white mountains in the baskets. My muscles had lost their tightness, so I bent down with relative ease, lifting up heaping handfuls from the craters. The gash in my palm had not yet healed. I had it well bandaged, but I made slower progress than Stefanos. We scooped out the moist salt gently, in order not to disturb the layers of silt which had collected at the bottom of the craters. The last bit of salt near the bottom we left, to avoid picking up any of the dirt. When all the craters were emptied, we had collected five full baskets of salt.

Back at Stefanos’ house, under the approving eye of Maria, we spread the glistening contents of our baskets out in the sun to complete the dryingprocess. Three more days in the sun and the salt was bone dry, ready for the table.

It shone so brightly in the sun that you could not look directly at it. Its white color was absolutely pure. The crystals were softer and less compressed than those of mined salt, flaky and easily crushed between the lingers. Its flavor was mild to the point where you could eat it pleasantly alone, without tasting any of the sharpness of a stronger salt.

My wife and I had our chance to try it out that night. Maria and Stefanos invited us for a supper ofhorta, a green vegetable similar to spinach which grows wild on the hillsides. I had eaten horta before, and I had not cared much for it. Since it meant an afternoon of gathering for Maria, I felt that I should tell her. She told me not to worry; the way she cooked it, I would be sure to like it. I took her at her word, and she went off to collect the greens.

Maria was anxious that from the start we should have the proper appreciation for sea salt. That night she had us use the salt on everything, including the bread (which was unsalted). The degree to which it brought out the wheat flavor in the bread was surprising.

It made the same improvement in the horta. Other times, horta had been served to me cold. Maria dished it out from boiling water onto plates on which she had spread a layer of olive oil. The steaming horta drew the oil upward, until it was thoroughly saturated. She handed us our plates with the confidence of a first-class chef, standing by triumphantly as we squeezed on a bit of lemon juice and added the salt. It was delicious.

After dinner, Stefanos and I divided our salt. I took one fourth of what we had gathered — enough to last approximately a year. Stefanos kept the rest, the majority of which he traded lor sponges, wheat, and the like. The split was a fair one. My cut was large enough for a beginner, and as a foreigner, 1 was not able to enter into the trading side of the venture. A year’s supply was all my wife and I needed.