Jun 142017

Today is the traditional date of the founding of Munich, capital of Bavaria, in 1158 by Henry the Lion who built a bridge there across the river Isar. The name of the city is derived from the Old/Middle High German term Munichen, meaning “by the monks” deriving from the fact that monks of the Benedictine order ran a monastery there, and hence the monk depicted on the city’s coat of arms. The date is, in fact, arbitrary based on the fact that this is the earliest date that the city is mentioned in a document, signed in Augsburg. Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria built a toll bridge over the river Isar as part of the Old Salt Route, a vital trade route for centuries.

The Old Salt Route (Alte Salzstraße) was a medieval trade route in northern Germany, one of an ancient network of salt roads which were used primarily for the transport of salt, but also for other staples. Salt was a very valuable commodity at that time, sometimes known as “white gold.” The vast bulk of the salt transported on the road was produced from brine near Lüneburg, a city in the northern central part of the country and then transported to Lübeck, a major seaport on the Baltic coast.

It is generally assumed that the Old Salt Route was part of a much longer path connecting the northern and southern towns of the region. One of the oldest documents that confirms Lüneburg’s role in refining and transporting salt dates from 956. According to that document, King Otto I the Great granted the St. Michaelis Monastery in Lüneburg the customs revenue from the saltworks. In those days the city’s wealth was based in large part on the salt found in the area. However, the Old Salt Route attained its peak of success between the 12th and the 16th centuries.

The trade route led from Lüneburg northward to Lübeck (also founded by Henry). From that port city, most of the salt was shipped to numerous destinations that also lie on the Baltic Sea, including Falsterbo, with its renowned Scania market (Danish Skånemarkedet) whose herring trade was one of the cornerstones of Hanseatic League. Salt was used for the preservation of herring which was of immense importance in the Middle Ages. The salt trade was a major source of power and wealth for both Lübeck and the Hanseatic League.

Legend has it that the herring fishery off the Scanian coast was so rich, that one could scoop up the fish with one’s hands. After a visit to the region in 1364, the French crusader Philippe de Mezieres wrote:

Two months a year, that is in September and October, the herring travel from one sea to the other through the Sound, by order of God, in such large numbers that it is a great wonder, and so many pass through the sound in these months, that at several places one can cut them with a dagger.

As early as the 12th century the peninsula had become a center for the herring trade; the Scanian name for the town Falsterbo was Falsterbothe, which meant “the booths for fish from Falster.” The 13th-century German chronicler Arnold of Lübeck, author of Chronicon Slavorum, wrote that the Danes had wealth and an abundance of everything thanks to the yearly catches of herring at the Scanian coast.

Salt wa brought from Lüneburg to a crossing of the Elbe river at Artlenburg (near Lauenburg) and from there, via Mölln, to Lübeck. However, for the most part, the historic trade route was composed of unsurfaced, sandy and often muddy roads through heathland, woods and small villages, making the transport of salt an arduous task. In addition, the route was dangerous given that the valuable cargo attracted thieves, bandits and marauders of all stripes. The dangers faced by those making the long trek, combined with the fact that only relatively small quantities of salt could be carried in any single journey, made moving salt via overland routes very expensive.

In 1175 Munich, fast becoming a vital link on the Salt Road, was officially granted city status and was fortified. In 1180, after the trial of Henry the Lion (in absentia for insubordination by a court of bishops and princes), Otto I Wittelsbach became Duke of Bavaria and Munich was handed over to the Bishop of Freising. (Wittelsbach’s heirs, the Wittelsbach dynasty, ruled Bavaria until 1918.) In 1240, Munich was transferred to Otto II Wittelsbach and in 1255, when the Duchy of Bavaria was split in two, Munich became the ducal residence of Upper Bavaria. Duke Louis IV, a native of Munich, was elected German king in 1314 and crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in 1328. He strengthened the city’s position by granting it the salt monopoly, thus assuring it vital income for its growth and prosperity.

No trouble finding a recipe today, of course, although I should talk about salt in the diet in general first. I pretty much always put “salt to taste” in recipes rather than giving precise amounts because tastes vary so dramatically, as well as dietary needs. In certain recipes, notably yeast products and some pastries, a small amount of salt is essential, but for the most part you can do without it if you train your palate. I almost never use salt in recipes but I get more than my recommended daily allowance, which is only about 1 to 2 grams, without trying. The thing is that salt was such an important part of food preservation in antiquity forwards that in general people’s taste buds became habituated to foods with high salt content so that foods with lower salt content tasted bland. Nowadays salt is no longer needed for preservation but the habituation remains. Clinical research results are not entirely definitive, but there seems to be a strong correlation between high salt intake and high blood pressure. In my humble opinion, it’s best not to take risks. For many years I had very low blood pressure, but I stopped using salt in cooking anyway. If you are habituated to high salt content and try to limit it when you develop high blood pressure, you are too late. It takes several months but you can reduce your salt intake slowly – day by day – and you’ll find that over time your taste buds adjust so that low salt or no salt recipes taste fine.

Herring spoils very quickly and so for centuries it had to be preserved by salting or smoking, or both, and these methods are still used because the results are not just practical but produce distinctive tastes as well. Because I don’t commonly cook with salt, heavily salted fish tastes overpowering to me. The usual instructions for cooking salt herring start by telling you to cover the fish in water in a large bowl and refrigerate overnight. I go a few steps further by placing it in a colander which I immerse in a large bowl of cold water, for about 8 hours, changing the water every hour. The colander facilitates lifting the fish out each time. Then I immerse the fish in a bowl of water, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Herring is a bony fish, so before you cook it you need to fillet it and remove the bones. A pair of tweezers is more or less essential.  Then the salted variety can be prepared in a number of ways. Breading the fillets and frying them  in a little olive oil with garlic is very traditional, but I’m more partial to making it into a classic English fish pie which I have mentioned before.  I make it easier to debone the fish by poaching it lightly first and then scraping the meat (in chunks as much as possible) from the bones. Then I prepare mashed potatoes with leeks and onions, mix it together with the fish, and bake in a hot oven until the top is golden. Proportion of fish to potatoes is entirely up to you.  About 1 part fish to 2 parts potato works for me.