A cure out of Eden.

As a bacon curer, most people were more than a little curious as to why I would be heading to a country and region famous for its lack of pork. Actually, I visited Kibbutz Lahav which like most, is secular. They have thousands of well-treated pigs for “scientific research” most of which seems to take the form of sausages.

Of course all curing interests me deeply, not just bacon or ham. But few people realise that between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago when the very first people to farm this Earth arrived in the region, their first and natural domesticate other than the dog, was the pig.

As well as the first agriculture known to our species, and the epicentre for that practice throughout The Western World, the importance of the region lies in its salt-rich waters and cliffs. We forget in modernity that salt of any kind is vital for life, was as difficult to find and as valuable as gold. Its ability to immortalise our bodies and souls, preserve and enhance food, or to maintain health among people and livestock made it so.

In curing terms, the earliest records we have all point to the region. Rome used to import several different kinds of salt from The Dead Sea area, a practice pointed to them by The Ancient Greeks and vended by The Israelites of the day. The ancient rabbinic laws that define “Kosher” had been in place for some time and the drawing of blood from meat by means of salt was so important culturally, as to almost define the people as being “of salt”

Somewhere between this first ever opportunity to cure as we know it and the earliest actual records, it happened. Surely, it must have happened here?

If so, how?

Even “the other” theory, that Ancient Gauls first taught Romans the art of curing hams by burying them (the hams, not The Romans!) under the tide-line until saturated with brine, and perhaps nitrates from seaweed upon the shingles and sands. We now know that farming practices did not spread as a copied technology but arrived with The Beaker People, a culture from the very same Fertile Crescent where The Dead Sea lies and close ancestors to The Celts and Gauls.

We will probably never know if those first humans ever discovered this technology. I can tell you that The Dead Sea at the time was far from dead, being about half as salty as it remains today and of a slightly different nature. The salts found today include the very metallic and bitter Magnesium Chloride and Potassium Chloride. Both are edible and in fact so vital to health that they can be found in baby formula, but I assure you that nobody would ever use Dead Sea water as we now know it to cure with. Yuck!

Catering for a much higher tolerance for bitter flavours in our ancestors, and that the gentler Calcium Chloride and Sodium chloride (table salt!) were more prevalent at the time, it is not beyond possibility that a good dunking of meat in the waters might have been a great idea. Especially if preserving the meat is more important than the taste (and it can always be soaked in fresh water later to remove the salt before cooking) Even modern Dead Sea water is more palatable at 15% salinity as I have discovered for myself. I won’t be wheeling it out at a dinner party anytime soon, though.

Another possibility which I think much more likely, occurs later at around 8,000 BC. By this time, true agriculture (which forces one to either take pig-farming seriously or drop the idea completely: they like to eat your crops and are good at escaping!) was in full swing and The Dead Sea was beginning to shrink and thus get more concentrated. It was also changing, losing its calcium and gaining the bitter salts that rule now. What this means though, is that Mount Sodom in modern-day Israel would have been accessible.

Mount Sodom is almost pure salt. There’s gypsum which is used in the UK’s brewing industry and which vastly improves a Wiltshire Brine (I don’t yet know why. But I trust the “Old Boy” who was enthusiastically trading tricks of the trade with me last year, and that’s what he says) There’s also Potassium Chloride which is used today as a low-sodium salt alternative for the table. It isn’t as nice, but its ok and I’ve cured some good stuff with it. The rest is pure sea-salt; millions of tons of it as a huge cliff in which run networks of caves.

In the increasingly hot climate from this time onward, these caves provided and still do provide people with cooling relief from the mid-day sun. Convective breezes refresh the air inside. I can well imagine people visiting regularly, and storing food there. Even as I write, there is a piece of beef resting in one such cave where I put it and a kibbutznik friend is going to retrieve it later. We’ll see if the surrounding salt walls and cool breeze have preserved it. I’m not sure if he’s going to risk actually eating the results!

Again, there is no evidence of such a practice. But if it happened, there’s a good chance that some food remains will be found if anyone were to look seriously. This might be a good excuse for a holiday next year.

Here’s what I absolutely DO know, though. Fast forward to the days of The Roman Empire. Not only were ship-loads of grey gypsum-laden rock salt quarried from Mount Sodom, but another curious salt went the same route. This was something that Jewish People had been tending for a couple of thousand years BC at least and which took place at the foot of Mount Sodom: Fresh rainwater can be irrigated or falls naturally to purify salt from the ground in shallow pools.

To do so, like growing a crystal garden like the one I had as a child, something must be cast into the shallow waters on which it can grow slowly and beautifully. This was in the form of a triangle of wooden sticks, over which was bound a second triangle facing the other way. King Solomon is credited with giving the people of his son, David, this shape to use.

Curiously, these pools were bright scarlet red. As an eye witness account from the period says, it looked like blood, and tasted like it too. I don’t make a point of tasting blood, I promise. But I HAVE used it for curing-with in experiments (it contains ALL the right stuff! Vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, salts, sugars and flavour) and the result was glorious.

What could this redness be from? Iron?

Actually, the “Dead” Sea isn’t. Dead, I mean.

Just about the ONLY thing that can live in it, is one of the oldest kinds of life we know-of. If you look to the intro of my book (which I started last year) I mention archaea, so called because they are truly arcane. They pre-date bacteria and lacking oxygen or sunlight, evolved to thrive in what our variety of life would find intolerable conditions of acidity, darkness, heat, cold, toxicity or.. salt. These feed upon an algae when the waters are diluted by floodwater and the algae is prettily named Dunaliella Salina. Between these both, the water turns bright red and the flavour is not unpleasant. In curing terms, what seems to me more than a little coincidental is that I have been preaching for some time that saltpetre (potassium nitrate) must have been in use for curing long before we ever knew we were using it (although in china it is entirely possible that they knew exactly what they were doing)

In among the fresh water-gathering pools on salt rock, nutrients and saltpetre (or nitrate) gather. Indeed, the old fort up at Ein Bokek just a few miles north along the “coast” made excellent saltpetre for thousands of years, and I even managed to scrape a little up from the rubble of it as I hitched back to Jerusalem.

Dunaliella Salina, LOVES nitrates. It devours them with gusto that almost matches my appetite for bacon. And that process of breaking down nitrate is exactly how bacon curing works in every single butchery, kitchen or factory even today ever since archaea and other bacteria adapted to live in and on us or our livestock. While forming an immune defence for their host or our lands, some also can eat nitrates and so produce the things that cure and flavour meat. This action leads to the cooked product remaining pink. Something that The Romans were aware of.

If you are a Bacon Wizard, this is exciting. A live curing brine from The Garden of Eden.

I now have a tank in my experimental butchery which is 15% salt of the right kinds and has constant daylight, plus a little oxygen. After depositing my smuggled samples into it last night, I am feeding it with saltpetre. I’m waiting for a rosy tint to show itself and later, mats of scarlet slime.

It’s ironic that this special, mysterious and ancient beyond words life-form might have given its magical properties to The World’s first and best curing salt, tended by Jewish or pre-Israelite people for whom salt is synonymous with all that is good and honest.

While Dunaliella Salina now provides antioxidant protection in cosmetics and may one day feed our entire livestock quickly and economically, she is forgotten as the Queen of Curing. Besides, the use of living creatures in say, cheese making, is a practice you won’t find in Israel today. It just isn’t Kosher.

Nevermind Dunaliella. I still love you. Please, cure me some bacon.

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