An old Salt

The hot Mauritian sunshine may ripen the sugar cane but it also helps produce another local product: salt. The Salines de Yemen salt-pans of Mauritius are at Tamarin on the west coast, one of the hottest parts of the island. Surprisingly enough, I found salt making shares a few techniques with wine making.

When the weather stays dry and with a light breeze, (it’s always hot) it takes 5 days for the sea water pumped from the Indian Ocean to run through the 1600 basins covering 20ha before the salt crystallises through evaporation and can be harvested.

The majority of these basins are filled with clay acting as a filter for the water as it runs from pan to pan via gravity (does this ring any bells with betonite filtration for white wine?). This clay has to be changed at least twice a year, more frequently if it rains as when the concentration of salt is diluted algae can form. A low rain fall, up to 5cm turns the salt brown, which can then be used for animal feed, more rain than that and they have a start again.

A clay lined basin
A clay lined basin

Being a tropical island it does rain, so the production period is concentrated in the drier months from September to December.

Salt water trickles down from one basin to another.
Salt water trickles down from one basin to another.

After filtration through the clay, the concentrated salt water trickles into the lower levels where the final 185 basins are constructed out of the island’s volcanic basalt rock. Heating quickly in the sun, this dark black stone perfectly optimises evaporation. The slower the evaporation, the whiter and purer the salt will be. The salt concentration is measured in ‘degrees Baumé’ with a mustimetre, the same tool used in wine making for measuring the evolutions of sugar concentration during alcoholic fermentation. Salt concentration starts off at about 30g per litre and reaches about 300g per litre in the final basins.

Measuring the salt concentration
Measuring the salt concentration

In the afternoon they harvest the fragile ‘Fleur de sel’, very fine crystals that are skimmed off the top of the water with a wooden skimmer. This is the most expensive and least ‘salty’ salt, often combined with herbs, spices and even local vanilla to make speciality condiments.  The next morning the ‘Gros Sel’ will be ready for harvesting.

Skimmer

At the end of the process there will be 6-7 cm of salt that has to be broken up, shovelled into pyramids and collected in 20 kg baskets. Each of the final basins will produce about 25 of these baskets, which are carried on the heads of the women to the 9 salt stores.

 

A salt store waiting for the harvest.
A salt store waiting for the harvest.

The saltpans employ 20 people and they produce about 2 000 tonnes of salt a year. The salt is destined for food seasoning industrial and domestic as well as the chlorination process of swimming pools.

‘Les Salines de Yemen’ ‘date back to the 18th century when the island was under French rule and salt was a valuable commodity especially important for conserving food on the long journey by ship between Asia and Europe. Mauritius was a vital stop off point on these trade routes.

The current pans were built by Rene Maingard in 1940’s and are still owned by the family today.

The dark basalt stone used in the basins is omnipresent on the island. It’s used in the construction of most of the historical buildings including the 90 remaining sugar mill chimneys scattered across the island, waterfront fortifications and official buildings, some dating back to the 18th century.

A final basalt basin
A final basalt basin

The islanders say they ‘grow’ these stones. Every 7 years the sugar canes fields have to be cleared of rocks when the cane replanted. The rocks are said to rise to the surface thanks to the active magma way below the surface. Local photographer Jano Couacaud has created a beautiful book of the influence of these rocks on the Island including pictures of these historic but still functioning saltpans.

 

 

 

 

 

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