Let’s briefly imagine that, rather than gathering to dine at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we’re back in 16th-century Italy, with master carver Vincenzo Cervio in charge of the meal. We’re about to share a leg of lamb.
Rather than slicing it on a platter, though, Cervio lifts the meat high in the air. He then removes the outer crust in slices, in full view of all attendees, which he then places around the rim of a serving dish. The remaining meat is sliced vertically, then horizontally—still while high in the air—and then beautifully laid out in the center of the plate.
Cervio then adds some gravy. “Only the highly skilled can manage this without getting gravy all over sleeves and shoes,” The Oxford Companion to Italian Food points out, “the sort of mishap Cervio says you can avert by altering the angle of the impaled meat as you work.”
In an imperfect world—one where the gravy does land on the carver— “you might need to pass this off with a merry quip or appropriate proverb, which takes a certain amount of nerve. Cervio greatly dislikes the histrionics of the show-off school of carving—he will have none of it, the gestures and grimaces and crowd-pleasing performances. He writes calmly of the skills and dexterity that should be deployed with a cool head and steady hands, without any fuss or flourishes.”
After this incredible performance, you might think it was now time to eat—and understandably so. But, no. There was still one more crucial step, the addition of a precious ingredient that demonstrated the high social status of the host. The meat carver, also known as the trinciante, would then “dip the end of the knife in salt and scrape it onto the diner’s plate.”
Yes. Salt was considered that important. In fact, it was often a nobleman, rather than a servant, who performed the sharing of the salt.
Before we move on, here’s one more fact about Cervio. He played an important role in the development of the culinary use of salt, one that goes far beyond how food was being served. That’s because, in a nobleman’s castle in 16th-century Italy, chefs often used complex sauces on meats, with Cervio going against expectations, recommending simple salt for seasoning purposes.
Now, here’s more about modern uses.
Salt at the Culinary Vegetable Institute
“Before salt was just salt—before it was industrialized and homogenized—it was a regional and idiosyncratic ingredient, perhaps the quintessential one, precisely because it was so universal. You could tell salts apart, prefer one to another, and pair them with different foods. You could acquire a salt vocabulary, tell salt stories. If you could be a snob about coffee, beer, butter, peppers, and pot, why not sodium chloride?” (Bon Appetit)
Our use of salt at the CVI isn’t as dramatic as Cervio’s, with Chef Jamie Simpson believing that salt, like quality service, is best when it goes unnoticed. “I don’t want to create a perception of saltiness in my dishes,” he says, “and yet I don’t want to present a dish that causes someone to want more salt. I’m after that beautiful balance, seasoning with salt in a way that’s just perfect.”
He compares the use of salt in Cervio’s era to how we might treat, say, truffles today. “Some ingredients,” Jamie says, “you want to display. You want to parade them. That’s what salt was like, but that’s not what we do with that ingredient at the CVI.”
On the other hand, CVI doesn’t just grab a box of salt off a grocery store shelf, either. Moreover, the CVI doesn’t use the kind that, as Bon Appetit says, has become “industrialized and homogenized.” Instead, like every single ingredient in the CVI kitchen, it is carefully chosen for its flavor and culinary applications. In fact, Jamie notes that he typically has nine to twelve different types of salt to choose from—including some “pretty obscure ones.”
For example, the CVI kitchen contains a marvelous salt (fleur de sel) that crystalizes on the edge of seaweed before being scraped, bagged and sold, while another one comes from the sides of fish sauce barrels. After the barrels are drained, they dry, and then salt crystals form. Still another option is a funky version that comes from Vietnam and Thailand, while a black salt from the Middle East offers up sulphuric depth, almost like onion, to a dish.
“We frequently use Maldon sea salt,” Jamie adds, “a pyramid-flaked salt out of England. We also use Diamond Crystal kosher salt, and I like that choice because you can grind it by simply pinching it between your fingers. This is ideal if you want a finely ground salt to, say, fry a vegetable chip.”
“Water is the ultimate cause of decay,” Jamie points out, “and salt modifies the flow of that moisture, giving us some ability to control that process of decay.” Plus, that flavor!
Salt at Charleston Grill
Executive Chef Michelle Weaver from the Charleston Grill is a fan of kosher salt, as well, and also appreciates French sea salts and unique finishing salts. “We love to brine here, both wet and dry brines,” she says, “and using salt plays a key part. It holds in moisture for leaner meats and can loosen up fibers. Salt pulls out the moisture in tomato pies so they aren’t soaking wet, brings out the flavor in watermelons, and is ideal for blanching water when cooking vegetables. It can also bring out the sweetness in pastries and other desserts.”
Michelle says that, at their restaurant, they season as they cook and don’t put salt shakers (or pepper shakers, for that matter) out on their tables. “People can ask for them, but we don’t automatically put them out. Many of us grew up having these shakers on the table, and so we’d add salt and pepper to food, whether it was needed or not.”
When she makes deviled eggs, for example, Michelle uses dill and capers in a way that precludes the need to add salt. And, when she uses mustard in dishes, she says they typically don’t need salt added. “Salt can add huge ranges of flavor, plus texture and crunch,” she says, “but it’s important to use quality salt, and less of it.”
Now, before we move onto the other half of today’s standard equation—pepper—here’s more about the incredible history of salt.
Fascinating History of Salt
“To say the history of salt is essentially the history of the world is not an understatement. Some call salt a ‘primordial condiment,’ and rightfully so. It has been part of this earth for as long as there has been water and rock to create it. Salt has a history billions of years in the making that only grows richer as generations of humans continue to learn about and appreciate its endless merits. Our modern-day uses of salt are a culmination of centuries-worth of cultures who coveted salt as a precious, rare, and indispensable commodity. To have salt readily available is a very recent luxury—a luxury by which Egyptian pharaohs and European kings would have been astonished.” (Beyond the Shaker)
Salt works probably existed in China as far back as 6000 B.C., with people harvesting salt after water evaporated in the summer heat. According to The History Vault, we can give thanks to Yi Dun for creating a more reliable method for extracting this crucial substance for use. Around 450 B.C., he boiled brine in iron pans until all that was left was the salt. About a thousand years later, this process was used throughout the Roman Empire. In fact, Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt and the substance was often taxed in various places. Let’s face it. Wars have been fought over the ownership of salt.
It’s believed that Ancient Egyptians were the first to recognize how they could preserve their meat and fish with salt, which ultimately made it possible to more safely ship food. By the Iron Age, people in Britain realized the value of flavoring food with salt, meaning that’s when they were first using it as a seasoning rather than just a preservative. During Tudor and Elizabethan times, having salt on your table showed your high social standing, much like it did in Cervio’s Italy.
“Butlers were given very specific instructions on how to serve salt,” the article reads when describing Britain, “usually in the ‘great salt,’ a receptacle that also served as an adornment and would be made of silver or silver gilt. To ‘sit above the salt’ was a sign of social prestige according to food writer and historian Clarissa Dickson Wright. She tells us that the great salt was mainly placed on the table for show in wealthy households and less important diners would be given the trencher salts, which were individual plates made of wood or metal.”
From Roman times through the period of the Renaissance, chefs served salted and sugared dishes at the same times during a meal. In the 17th century in France, though, royal cooks for Louis XIV began serving salted dishes throughout the meal, to stimulate the appetite. At the end of the meal, they served sweet dishes to note that the meal was ending.
In the United States, we know that salt was a treasured commodity during the Revolutionary War because British soldiers tried to intercept supply lines so that rebel soldiers in the colonies couldn’t preserve food. During the War of 1812, as in Ancient Roman times, soldiers would be partly paid with salt. In fact, the word “salary” comes from the notion of being paid with salt.
And, now, here’s a bit of insight into the history of pepper, as well as why the two substances are so often paired together.
History of Pepper
Black pepper, History.com points out, is only indigenous to a province in southwest India, but it was already being traded between India and the West—meaning, Greece and Rome—in ancient times. To protect their treasured pepper, Arabian traders would make up fantastical stories about how their spice was being protected by fiery dragons.
In Medieval times, pepper was considered a luxury in Europe, with the phrase “pepper expensive” being used to describe something of a “prohibitive cost.” Because of its value, European explorer Christopher Columbus once filled the holds of his ship with pepper after a stop in the West Indies. Or, at least what he thought was pepper. After arriving back in Spain, though, he was dismayed to discover that he didn’t actually have peppercorns. Instead, he had chili peppers, which were much less valued.
Interestingly enough, as salt and pepper became more affordable, usage decreased. Or, as NPR puts it, “they grew less associated with wealth and featured less in European courtly cooking.”
But nothing seems to have broken the connection between salt and pepper, even though other spices could be just as delicious.
Why Are Salt and Pepper Paired Together?
“I’ve started to wonder why pepper gets such Cadillac placement on the American table, sitting beside the salt shaker at every coffee shop and kitchen counter in the country. Why, too, do so many recipes invite us to season ‘with salt and freshly ground black pepper’ upon completion? Why isn’t it salt and cumin, or salt and coriander, with every dish in the Western canon? What’s so special about pepper anyway? Perhaps it’s time to rethink the spice.” (Slate.com)
As the video asks, why salt and pepper? Why has this become the ultimate yin/yang of seasoning?
Well, we actually need salt in our diets. More specifically, we need to ingest about six grams of salt daily for good health. So, not surprisingly, this video calls salt the most important ingredient on earth—one that adds saltiness to dishes, while having the ability to block bitter flavors and amplify sweet and umami ones.
So, here’s the real question: why black pepper?
The conclusion by Fine Dining Lovers is that, because King Louis XIV of France enjoyed his food seasoned with salt and pepper—and because French cuisine has come to play a highly respected role in the culinary world—this became the accepted spice pairing.
“Another reason that black pepper has been so widely used,” Jamie speculates, “is its antimicrobial nature. But I agree that it’s largely an inherited preference. It we hadn’t grown up pairing salt and pepper, it’s a combination might actually be a bit shocking.”
So, what about at the Culinary Vegetable Institute? “We do have a two-ounce pepper mill by our stove,” he says, “but the frequency that we use it is pretty small.”
Plus, at the CVI, multiple varieties of peppercorns are used, not just the black variety. “Black peppercorn,” Jamie says, “is a staple for breakfast meals, for gravy, for seared and grilled dishes. There is also pink peppercorn that we used at our recent dinner that featured cruciferous vegetables and in our wasabi ice cream.”
There’s also long peppercorn, which botanically differs from true peppercorn. “It’s really beautiful,” Jamie says, “floral with lots of character. There’s also white peppercorn that’s traditionally used in white sauces and with fish, but I don’t fully subscribe to the idea that it needs limited in that way. I believe we can explore its uses further. Freeze dried green peppercorn, meanwhile, is more vegetal, while smoked peppercorn adds just the kind of flavor that its name implied.”
Szechuan peppercorn also plays a role in the CVI kitchen. “It’s more of a flower bud,” Jamie says, “with a layer of floral flavoring and an almost mouth-numbing quality that can be useful in some applications. It’s a very polarizing, distinct ingredient, one that pulls you into the direction of Chinese food.”
We invite you to attend events at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, where you can personally experience the flavorful ways Jamie Simpson and his chef team use salt, pepper—and a rainbow of other seasonings.