White Gold

29 Apr 2014

In the town of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital city of the province of Álava in the Basque Country of northern Spain, the Slow Food Executive Committee came together this weekend for their bi-monthly strategic meeting. Taking a break from the meeting room, the group had a chance to discover local food cultures, traditions and producers from the region. The highlight was a visit to the birthplace of a salt known as ‘white gold’ in the salt valley of Añana (Salinas de Añana). The valley, covered with wooden stilts that support the terraced slopes, has a truly magical charm, regarded by many to be one of the most spectacular and best-preserved inland salt works in the world.


For centuries, the villages of Añana survived from the production of salt, with almost 1,200 years of documented history. Along with a family vegetable garden, the sale of this hand-produced salt provided a dignified way of making a living for local communities. Each family owned a tank in which salt water and the sun provided the sole elements for producing pure flor de sal. The salt water is sourced from an underground reservoir, channeled down the slopes and delivered to the terraces by wooden infrastructure. Once the water evaporates, the salt that forms is collected with a special rake.  


In the 1970s, the introduction of industrial extraction by mechanical means quickly put many artisan producers out of business. Gradually, tanks were abandoned, wooden poles deteriorated, terraces gave way and the salt began to decay. However, at the start of the millennium, the local community decided to take action. Determined to preserve traditional production methods (and a way of life), the local population created a foundation to enable the gradual recovery of the salt, declaring: “Our salt cannot disappear!


Standing at the foot of the salt valley, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini was visibly moved. He spoke of the benefits of a product that fuses history and popular wisdom: “Today, food is losing value,” he said, “Many consider it a commodity and speak only of price. This product is precious, and it should be valued.” This is a message that has already been understood by some of the most famous chefs in Spain, including Juan Roca and Andoni Luis Aduriz, who use the salt in their restaurants.


The valley has been protected on the Spanish heritage register since 1984 and is also a candidate World Heritage Site of UNESCO. During the visit, attended by a large number of representatives of the local government and the Basque government, as well as those that have devoted their lives to collecting the ‘white gold’ in the valley, Carlo Petrini, named the salt valley as a new Slow Food Presidium, presenting the official title to the deputy president of the local foundation, Javier de Andrés.


The Presidium title not only recognizes and promotes a very old technique, but also the exceptional quality of that salt from the region. It aims to ensure that the work – which happens totally through natural and renewable sources of energy, and human hands – can continue for many centuries to come.


Find an article in Spanish here: La sal de Añana, un manjar sin prisas


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