In defence of salt
The National Health and Medical Research Council might know a fair bit about health, but they don’t know anything about cooking.
The NHMRC last week released the innocuous sounding Assessing Cost-Effectiveness in Prevention report. The document is the result of five years of research by people who take carrots, nuts and celery into work in plastic lunch boxes, and think the rest of us should do the same.
The report has at its centre some fairly predictable calls for smokers to be taxed out of existence with an immediate 5 per cent increase in tobacco taxes (on top of the 25 per cent increase in April this year), a 10 per cent increase in the tax on spirits, and an increase in the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.
Smokers and drinkers are now so inured to this kind of stuff that they laugh wheezily in the face of both death, and more punitive tax regimes.
The left-field entry in this report is that in addition to the war on (legal) drugs we are now about to declare war on salt, that most excellent of condiments, which for centuries has played an invaluable role in preserving food but accentuating and enhancing flavour.
In her little-known tome Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, the doyen of food writers Elizabeth David devotes five pages to the correct use of salt.
“Forget not the salt, whether it be a question of your bread dough, your salad dressing, your béchamel sauce, your omelette, your rice, your spice compounds – and do not forget the salt when it comes to making a stock or broth which is to be concentrated by reduction, or you take the risk of making it uneatable by anybody’s standard.”
Such wild talk would have Ms David arrested by the NHMRC, which in its report is proposing a mandatory limit on salt in the three basic food items of bread, cereals and margarine, and a new 10 per cent tax on so-called junk foods such as potato crisps.
The idea of not using salt, or using an imperceptible amount of salt, in the making of bread is a genuine culinary crime. And while any decent cook will only use unsalted butter in cooking – purely so as to control the amount of salt which is added subsequently to a dish - you would never put unsalted butter on your bread as it does nothing to bring out bread’s flavour.
The issue here seems to be one of volume. Are we really ingesting so much salt as to be endangering our lives? If we are, surely it’s a question of educating people who subsist on nothing but Cheezels and Kettle Chips that there’s other, wiser ways of using the stuff?
As anyone who has ever accidentally bought a bottle of tasteless salt-free tomato sauce will tell you, the mandated absence of salt is a recipe for culinary disaster. Letting health experts determine what should really be questions of food preparation is the most unwelcome culinary trend since the invention of wholemeal pasta.
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