Pass The Salt, Please | Valentina Cirasola | Author and Designer

PortaSale ©Valentina Cirasola

Photo ©Valentina Cirasola

Among all the small treasures my mother left me, there is a quaint salt container that stole my heart. It is a hand-made Capodimonte ceramic with a brass base and a silver spoon.
(Photo left Capodimonte Salt Cellar property of ©Valentina Cirasola)

My mother put it out during the “feste terribili” meaning those important occasions when a lot of guests came and the table was spectacularly made up. This small vessel contained salt as a courtesy to the guests and it was intended to pass around when needed. However, it was rarely used, if food is properly balanced with seasons and flavors, there is no need for additional salt.
Adding salt to food served at the table is a kind of offense for the chef or cook.

Before refrigeration was invented, salt and many different spices were so important for the conservation of meat and fish. In the haute cuisine of the Middle Ages, spices were abundantly used for a couple of reasons, one was to prove a higher status symbol. Rich people could afford the high price of all the spices and thus consumed about 2 lb a day, but in more modest households the common spices used were the most affordable: vinegar, mustard, onion, garlic and of course salt. The second reason for using salt and spices was to cover up at times the dull taste of meat gone bad and unpleasant fish smell.

Salt consumption in the 13th century was in such a high demand for preservation of food that it was necessary to create beds of sea salt drawn from Oceans and Seas. It was coarse and dark with all the impurities of the sea, but better for curing meat than refined salt. The white variety of salt was used for cooking, thus it was more expensive.

Did the people in the Middle Ages use salt shakers at the table as we do today?  No, but hear this.

In the British Museum, I saw the Nef, a stunning elegant salt vessel used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This extravagant 15th-century table piece was made in the shape of a ship with the most elaborate head masts, sails, and even crew.
The particularity was that the Nef was placed in front of the most important person at the table as a respect to their high status. After the VIP used it, the Nef was rolled from one end of the table to the other.  The examples made with wheels were the most elegant, but most had legs or pedestals. The German-style Nef had clock, music, and figurines animated by a small engine.
(Photo Burghley Nef:

A Nef was usually made of silver, silver-gilt or gold, often further embellished with enamel and jewels. I would have wanted to own and cherish such an exquisite piece, just like my mother’s piece!

The dinner table of the Middle Ages and Renaissance always fascinated me. No silverware only knives, no napkins, no refined glassware, but they had spices in abundance and during the grand feasts, they even had the grandest effects with gold and silver leaf gilding the beaks and feet of roasted birds, pheasants, swans, and peacocks.

It amazes me to think about how so many sophisticated effects were achieved in dark kitchens, full of smoke, unhygienic, no automation, heat, long hours of preparation and cooking handling heavy pots.
This proves what I have always thought: if you know how to orchestrate a meal, you can do it anywhere, “small kitchens are for geniuses”.

Remembering my mom, I often put out her Capodimonte ceramic salt vessel on my table, right along with a less pretentious container made from Himalayan salt intended for salt.

This article was also published on the Italian American Foundation Paper. 

I am here to help you find any historical object, any gadget for kitchens, or any extravagant piece for your home in furnishing or art, just leave your name in the box below. Ciao,

Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved

Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe.  She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn ugly spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos. She is the author of two published Italian regional cuisine books, available on Amazon and Barnes&Noble
Come Mia Nonna – A Return To Simplicity 
Sins Of A Queen 



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