In the Bay of Cadiz, thousand-year-old salt marshes find light again

There are only a handful left, but with an ambition intact: in Cadiz, in the south of Spain, passionate producers are fighting against all odds to revive the culture of salt, which has fallen into disuse after 3,000 years of glorious story

In the Bay of Cadiz, thousand-year-old salt marshes find light again

There are only a handful left, but with an ambition intact: in Cadiz, in the south of Spain, passionate producers are fighting against all odds to revive the culture of salt, which has fallen into disuse after 3,000 years of glorious story.

“Here is a perfect place for salt marshes,” breathes Juan Carlos Sánchez de Lamadrid, peering in front of him at the pools of milky water from which small piles of sparkling salt emerge. “It’s windy, lots of sun… Everything you need!”

Originally from Seville, this 56-year-old salt worker dropped anchor in this bay open to the Atlantic in 2020, after a career as a photographer. The result of a love at first sight for the region and its salt marshes, which pushed him to swap the camera for the wheelbarrow and the rake.

“We had to learn everything, we were starting from zero,” confides the fifty-year-old, recounting having trained with one of the rare master salt makers still active in the region, with forays into Portugal then France “to discover 'other techniques'.

Long-term work which is beginning to bear fruit: with his wife and two employees, De Lamadrid produced last year 30 tonnes of virgin sea salt and 3 tonnes of fleur de sel, the marketing of which began a few years ago. weeks, with a first shipment to Japan.

“We harvest everything by hand, in an artisanal way,” insists the Sevillian, determined to restore luster to this product inseparable from the history of Cádiz.

Built nearly 3,000 years ago by the Phoenicians, who controlled the salt trade in Mediterranean countries, the salt marshes have long ensured the wealth of this province in southern Andalusia, known for its dazzling light.

But this thriving sector ended up collapsing. Of the 160 artisanal salt works recorded at the beginning of the 20th century, only four are still in operation today. And the “white gold” of Cadiz, once exported to America, has fallen into oblivion.

At the origin of this rapid decline, the invention of the refrigerator, which put an end to the use of salt for the preservation of a large part of food, and the lack of investment and diversification in the face of the boom foreign competition.

Unlike other producing regions, "like Guérande" in France, Cádiz "has not been able to adapt", deplores Juan Martin, president of the Salarte association, created in 2012 to revive salt farming and restore the marshes left abandoned.

For eleven years, this NGO has rehabilitated 250 hectares of salt marshes, thanks to private funding. Some “were in a deplorable state,” says Juan Martin, observing with his binoculars migratory birds feeding in a recently restored pond.

And other projects are planned. The Bay of Cádiz is still "too undervalued", insists this marine biologist: "it's a shame, because the marshes are real treasures", "source of economic activity" but also of "extraordinary biodiversity".

Production of oysters and salicornia, manufacturing of cosmetic products, ecotourism... Alongside the restarting of the saltworks, several projects have seen the light of day over the past 10 years to give new impetus to this area.

The marshes, where sea bream, shrimp, clams and black stone crabs meet, are “a pantry of great richness”, explains Ángel Léon, chef of the three-star restaurant Aponiente.

Established since 2015 in a 19th century tide mill, in the heart of a salt pan which until recently served as a public dump, this 46-year-old chef multiplies culinary experiences around products from the Bay of Cádiz, such as salt. .

“It’s a product that we use every day but to which we don’t give enough importance,” regrets this defender of artisanal salt, whose “texture” and “taste in the mouth” have “nothing to do with it.” see" with industrial salt, obtained by refining.

“The problem is that we are not paying attention: we have to be more attentive,” insists the chef of Aponiente, who hopes to see Cádiz salt quickly find its way back to the big tables.

22/09/2023 17:13:43 -       Cádiz (Spain) (AFP) -       © 2023 AFP