I have got to thank the salt love and addiction of my wife’s parents, for inspiring a visit to Guerande and its salt marshes.
Guerande is a town on the Atlantic coast not too far from Nantes, and is known as having one of the best preserved medieval town centers in Brittany. It is true that the xv century ramparts and the inner town are quite stunning.
But Guerande is mainly known as being the main town of the salt marshes of Guerande. This salt — especially the “Fleur de sel” salt — from Guerande is widely seen as a delicacy, and used in many top restaurants all over the world. So going there on market day with salt lovers, means you will have to carry kilos of salt across town.
Generally, salt is nowadays seen as a very basic and cheap condiment. It was not always so.
Salt was used for curing meat and fish, and without brine it would be impossible to make most cheeses ( I shiver at that thought).
In an age where you did not have refrigeration you could simply not do without salt.
Now the French kings definitely understood the importance of this white gold and from the 14th century decided that the French state should control the salt trade and tax it.
And it would tax it heavily but not in the same way across the country. Places like Brittany (and Guerande) would be completely exempt from any tax (don’t upset the Bretons, as they can be very independently minded, must have thought the regents at the time). Other areas such as Paris and most of the north and center of France would be taxed very heavily. The price of salt could be multiplied by 20 just by crossing the borders of Brittany.
The salt tax was known as the Gabelle, and was one of the most hated taxes of the kingdom, especially as the nobility and the clergy were usually avoiding that particular tax.
Colbert, the French finance minister under the Sun king, Louis the XIV, in the 17th century regulated the whole salt trade and made it a complete state monopole: now one could only buy salt from specific state granaries. Which annoyed people even more as on top of having to pay a high price for salt they also had to travel sometimes quite far to get an essential commodity, and one was forced to buy a minimum amount per year.
All of this naturally created a massive salt black market. The rewards for operating in that black market were just too huge: one successful trip, carrying salt on your own from non-taxed to taxed areas, would get you the equivalent of 3 months worth of income. Accordingly the penalties for operating as a smuggler were very harsh: you could if you were caught end up with a heavy fine, if it was the first time you got caught and you were lucky, but usually one would end up in chains in a galley, or have a date with the Hangman.
However even with such big penalties, it is estimated that half the people in the Brittany borders were directly or indirectly living thanks to salt smuggling. In border towns in Brittany in the 18th Century, such as Vitré, people would on average buy 48kg of salt per person per year, whereas on the other side of the Brittany border in Laval people would officially buy 4.4 kg of salt per person per year. Obviously a lot of the salt bought in Brittany ended up illegally on the other side of the border. (To think that I’d be surprised if I use more than 1 kg of salt per year).
After the French revolution in 1790 the Gabelle was abolished. Now that made most people happy, but it left all the smugglers and the salt border control agents (known as Gabelous) without a job. And this is why you found a lot of those smugglers and border agents ending up fighting together in the counterrevolutionary movements in favour of royalty. The revolutionnary minds must have thought that this was quite an ironic situation.
Napoleon reestablished the Gabelle, after all he needed money to finance his wars. And the Gabelle was only officially abolished in 1945.
Now towns like Guérande obviously prospered thanks to their white gold, and does so still today. If you end up in Guerande get some salt and try some salted caramels, they’re yummy.