Mosaico di Vita | Consorzio Vini di Romagna
June 2021 | Tradition

Sale Dolce di Cervia: and foundering is sweet in such a salt

Cervia's white gold has a long, bittersweet history that is filled with ups and downs, a living memory in the city’s salt pan

We can proudly say this: salt is…the salt of gastronomy! It may not be impossible, but we can hardly think of a dish that does not need that famous “pinch of salt”. Identifying the type of flavor that it brings is an ongoing debate, one that delicacies, recipes and eating habits have fought on and are still battling out. There are people who cannot possibly start their day without cakes, croissants and spoon sweets. While there are also those who would trade any sweet delicacy for a piada, a prosciutto sandwich or a plate of marinated sprats. Choosing between sweet and savory is a battle that would probably last for eternity, but in Romagna they reached a truce that sounds as strange as it may seem: in Cervia, since the Classical Ages, a sweet type of salt is produced, a true white gold with great historical and culinary importance.

Sale di Cervia has long been known as a sweet salt. This is definitely a weird combination of words considering that, linguistically, these two terms are extreme opposites. It is true that salt does not suppress sweet flavors: in fact, it further enhances the sweetness of a dish when used in small quantities. But if we’re looking for a sodium chloride crystal that can add flavor without risking a salty result, the only place to go to is Cervia.

From the Classical Age up to present: the history of the Cervia Salt Pan

The Salt Pan of Cervia is the northernmost in Italy: it is an area of 827 hectares, with over 50 basins surrounded by a 16km channel that allows the water of the Adriatic Sea to circulate within the salt pan. Water enters the tributary channel located near Milano Marittima and begins a long journey marked by the rhythm of the currents and the complex system of floodgates, mobile barriers and canals that channel the water into the various basins. Once this flavorful treasure has been deposited, the waters are “directed towards the exit” located next to the Torre di San Michele, an imposing fortress that defended the precious crystal stored in the adjacent Magazzino del Sale. These two historical buildings are the proof of the very ancient bond that existed between the Sale Dolce di Cervia and the city.

The origins of the Cervia Salt Pan have been lost in time: some associate them with the Etruscans; others to the Greek colonization, mentioning that the old name of Cervia, “Ficocle”, has Greek origins. What we know for sure is that salt production in this area was already flourishing during the Romans and was part of an important trade post that was centered in nearby Ravenna, seat of the legions going to Gaul. From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 18th century, salt production and trade grew so much that the ancient village of Cervia was moved to make room for new collection basins. But where did the fame of the city’s sweet salt started? There is only one answer: the “Cervese” method.

The Cervese Method

As always, Mother Nature enabled the people of Cervia to develop the “cervese” method. But it is also true that only the stubborn, ingenious and untamed nature of Romagna people would have been able to see an element that could play on their favor amidst the difficult pedoclimatic conditions of the upper Adriatic. Lower temperatures and higher levels of rainfall compared to the southern Mediterranean, where most salt pans are located, urged salt workers to adopt a multiple collection method carried out on a prolonged period. Instead of collecting salt from a single basin, they began to divide their collection basin into five small vessels. Salt was harvested every day, starting from the first of these vessels and reaching the last one after five days. This allowed workers to bring smaller quantities of salt to the market daily, the kind that had exceptional quality. Prolonged yet constant collection prevented the formation of bitter chlorides such as magnesium, calcium, potassium sulphate and magnesium chloride. These substances need more time and higher temperatures to crystallize, which was not possible at the pace at which the salt miners of Cervia proceeded and the climatic conditions that still characterize the area. Thus, a “sweet” salt was obtained, made up of pure sodium chloride, rich in trace elements such as iodine, zinc, copper, iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium.

From the closedown to the Slow Food Presidium

In 1959, the history of the Cervia Salt Pan took an unexpected turn: the property passed on to the Monopolio di Stato which supported the management's choice to abandon tradition and embrace modernity. The 144 salt basins, where the sweet salt of Cervia had been manually collected for hundreds of years, became one single, large body of water. The Cervia Salt Pan adapted the “French method” which consisted in collecting sodium chloride crystals once a year using machineries: this was the first step towards the darkest and saddest chapter of its history. In 1998, due to the long and complicated restructuring operations which the Monopolio di Stato underwent, the Cervia Salt Pan was closed after more than two thousand years of activity. Faced with such a sad spectacle, the municipality of Cervia worked in order to obtain the management of the salt pans. In 2003 the management company Parco della Salina di Cervia was founded and has since been working to protect and promote this site.

Although production in the “large” salt pan has since resumed using modern techniques and machineries, the final result is still a high-quality and sweet salt. Of the 144 basins into which the salt pan was divided, only one remains, the Salina Camillone, entrusted to the association Gruppo Culturale Civiltà Salinara of Cervia: here, salt collection is done using the “cervese” method. It is a living section of the Museo del Sale whose Sale Dolce di Cervia became a Slow Food Presidium in 2004 thanks to its quality and historical and cultural importance.