Salt was an essential item on every medieval table. It was served not in shakers, as we do, but rather in a communal mound upon a bread trencher, or else in a communal saltcellar. Such saltcellars were often ornate, intricate, and fashioned of precious metals. A particularly popular style was the nef, in the shape of a ship, replete with tiny rigging, cannon, and sailors.
Dipping food directly into the cellar was frowned upon. One would take a small portion and place it upon a clean trencher.
Good quality salt was made from brine springs by evaporation, or from peat that contained seawater; the peat was burned, and the ashes mixed with water to produce brine. (The salt-mining industry did not arise until the 19th century.) These methods produced a fine white salt. Salt could be obtained more cheaply and easily by evaporating seawater (one gallon of seawater yields about 1/4 pound of salt), but this type of salt was coarser and usually contained dirt and debris, so that it varied in color from gray to green.
People would buy different types of salt for different purposes, i.e., green for the kitchen and white for the head table. Clever folk soon found ways of refining the cheaper salt to yield a better quality. The 14th century work, Le Ménagier de Paris, contains a recipe for refining coarse salt:
"TO MAKE WHITE SALT, take a pint of coarse salt and three pints of water, and set them on the fire until the salt is melted in the water, then strain it through a cloth, towel, or sifter, then set it on the fire and boil it well and skim it, and let it go on boiling until it is quite dry and the little grains that have been throwing up water be dry; then turn the salt out of the pan and spread it on a cloth to dry in the sun."1