Bonaire – The Salt of The Sea

Salt is something we all need but never really think of. We never think of where it comes from, or how it is mined, or even why we need it. But need it we do in order to survive. Salt plays a crucial role in maintaining human health. It is the main source of sodium and chloride ions in the human diet. Sodium is essential for nerve and muscle function and is involved in the regulation of fluids in the body. Sodium also plays a role in the body’s control of blood pressure and volume. In severe cases, low sodium levels in the body can lead to muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. Eventually, lack of salt can lead to shock, coma and death. But rest assured, severe salt loss is very unlikely to happen because our diets contain more than enough salt. Our body needs about 100 grams of salt for every 40 kilos of weight.

Salt and its many uses has been around for 1000’s of years. It was first discovered by the Egyptians, but was mined by the Ancient Chinese, in northern China, around 6000 BC, if not even earlier. China is the world leader in terms of salt production, with 64 million metric tons of salt produced in 2021. That same year, salt production in the U.S. amounted to 40 million metric tons. Many other countries around the world also produce salt. Rumor has it that some of the best salt comes from Wales.

There are four types of salt:

  • Kosher salt. Kosher salt is a coarse-grained flaky salt.
  • Table salt. This is the most common type of salt, and the one most used in home kitchens. …
  • Sea salt. Sea salt refers to unrefined salt that is sourced from โ€” appropriately โ€” the sea. …
  • Coarse salt.

The main differences between sea salt and table salt are in their tastes, texture and processing. Sea salt comes from evaporated seawater and is minimally processed, so it may retain trace minerals. The minerals sea salt contains depend on the body of water where it’s evaporated from. And this brings me to the salt mines and salt pyramids of Bonaire, which is of course, sea salt.

The salt pyramids of Bonaire are part of the history of the island. Salt was once a critical element in the complex trade relations that tied together the original 13 American colonies with the Caribbean and West Africa. Bonaire has been the center of the Dutch trade in salt since 1581. From the very beginning, Caribbean salt would be exported all over North America, as well as back to Europe. The salt mines are are all located in very close proximity to the open sea, for obvious reasons of easy transport.

One of the most notable features of Bonaire that greets arriving visitors, both by sea and by air, is a distinctive line of white salt pyramids at the southeastern end of the island. Each pyramid, roughly 50-feet high, contains approximately 10,000 metric tons of 99.6 percent pure salt. Depending on the time of the year, there can be upwards of 200,000 metric tons of salt neatly stacked in long rows awaiting shipment.

We were lucky enough to dive at Salt Pier one day, but unfortunately, every other time we tried to dive there, there was a ship loading up and we were not allowed to dive anywhere near the ships when in port. The diving is great there too. It is so full of of colorful sea life and is very vibrant. We were able to dive a little further down the road though at Tori’s Reef, which was one of our favorite dive sites.

But I digress. When I start talking about diving, it is hard for me to stop. To get back on track, I am talking about the salt mines here. Stay focused JJ (I often refer to myself as JJ, short for Jeanne Jones, when in the 3rd person mode), stay focused. ๐Ÿ™‚

The salt mines are a beautiful pink shade, which is a stark contrast to the vivid blue/turquoise waters just across the road. They also have a beautiful foam layer on top. When the sun hits at the right angle, it looks like a sea of beautifully colored crystals, also known as sun gems. The salt produced in Bonaire is in crystal form rather than rock form, which is created by a special brine.

The solar salt facility, one of the largest in the Caribbean, is today owned by Cargill, the Minneapolis, Minnesota based conglomerate. The facility covers approximately 13 percent of the island, about 16 square miles of land on the flat, southeast corner. The entire location is only a few feet above sea level.

When the brine reaches between 25 percent and 30 percent salinity it is moved into crystallizer ponds. As the evaporation of water increases the salinity beyond 37 percent, the salt begins to crystallize and precipitate out of the brine solution. Eventually it will form an 8 to 10-inch layer of virtually pure salt. The entire process takes 10 to 12 months, depending on the prevailing temperature and wind, as well as the precipitation and the degree to which dust and other contaminants in the air provide the nuclei that spur the crystallization of the salt. The washed salt, more than 99.6 percent pure, is then stacked into Bonaireโ€™s iconic and unmistakable salt pyramids. This facility can produce between 300,000 and 500,000 metric tons of salt annually. It is exported all over the world in roughly equal portions to Europe, Asia and North America. Bonaire (the Netherlands) produces about 2.36% of the world’s salt.

As the salinity of the salt ponds increase, they each produce a distinctive ecology. Various kinds of algae and Halobacteria, an archaic precursor to bacteria, thrive in the super salty water giving the ponds their distinctive pinkish coloration. This high content of salinity and algae have also made this area a very large flamingo reserve as well, but more on that later. We did see tons of beautiful pink flamingos, both here and elsewhere on the island.

And just right across the road, is the beautiful blue ocean.

Salt mining is very hard work and is very labor intensive. Originally the salt in Bonaire was mined by the slaves who were brought over from Africa, but that ended in 1863, when the Dutch outlawed slavery. The slaves lived in these tiny little huts by the sea. These little huts housed 2-6 people. They are so tiny that a normal sized adult cannot even stand up in them. Larry is 6’4″ and he had to get on his knees to get inside.

The huts were colored to match the pyramid towers. Most of the people could not read at the time, so the colors identified the owners and where the ships were supposed to load and unload.

These were the “red huts”, even though they look orange. There were four colors, meaning four companies – red, white, blue and brown.

So next time you add a little salt to your dish, now you know a bit more of how it came to you. We all need to be a little more salty. ๐Ÿ™‚

Stay safe and stay well Everyone. ‘Til next time.

Author: ajeanneinthekitchen

I have worked in the restaurant and catering industry for over 35 years. I attended 2 culinary schools in Southern California, and have a degree in culinary arts from the Southern California School of Culinary Arts, as well as a few other degrees in other areas. I love to cook and I love to feed people.

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