Hand-crafted salt part of intangible Portuguese heritage

Only 37 people hold knowledge of artisanal production of salt in Figueira da Foz

The artisanal production of salt in Figueira da Foz – which dates back to the 12th century and is entirely collected by hand, according to ancestral techniques – has been inscribed in the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the government announced today

In a press release sent to the Lusa agency, the Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage (DGPC) explained that the activity in the coastal municipality of the district of Coimbra continues to this day, “having known different cycles throughout history”.

“The collection is entirely done by hand, according to ancestral techniques that have been transmitted between generations”.

The statement notes that, currently, “there are only 37 active holders of this knowledge, “men and women almost all residing in the parishes of Lavos and Vila Verde, places with strong roots in the production of traditional sea salt, with the majority of ‘marnoteiros’ owning their boats”.

“Although with common principles in the various producing regions of Portugal (Aveiro, Figueira da Foz, Tejo, Sado and Algarve), the artisanal production of sea salt assumes markedly regional characteristics, both in the layout of the salt pans and in the techniques and practices of the ‘marnotos’ – differentiated according to environmental conditions”.

The salt pans of Figueira da Foz are located in the Mondego estuary (particularly on the south bank of the river and on the island of Morraceira), “which gives them a specific morphology, determining the layout of the pans, which are divided into three distinct sections –  water reservoirs, evaporators and crystallisers”.

“The practices and techniques inherent to the production of salt in this geographical context are closely linked not only to the salt pans still in activity (more than three dozen) but also to the salt warehouses of Figueira da Foz, a very characteristic and exclusive type of construction of this salt flat, of which there are still a few dozen examples that retain their original characteristics”, the document states.

After the beginning of the millennium, the situation of Figueira da Foz’s salt pans raised concern about the future, “having been at risk the survival of the activity and the continuity of its marks in the landscape – as well as its natural functions, as an ecosystem”. Several initiatives within the framework of European programmes allowed the municipality”to develop actions to safeguard and boost the activity”.

More than 20 years ago, in the first term of Santana Lopes who is mayor once again, the City Council – which proposed this registration request – acquired the Corredor da Cobra salt pan, integrated, since 2007, in the then-created Núcleo Museológico do Sal.

The mayor told Lusa it was “a source of great satisfaction” to inscribe the local salt in intangible cultural heritage and also “an expression of art”.

“At the same time, it is an economic activity, but it is a cultural wealth, an artistic expression,” said Santana Lopes.

The inscription, he said, coincides with his desire to “give new impetus to the valorisation” of Morraceira Island, and the importance of the salt pans “for the identity of Figueira”.

“Salt, like the sun, is part of Figueira’s identity. So it is a day of satisfaction, which joins the recent day when (the monastery of) Seiça was elevated to a national monument. It’s good news”, emphasised Santana Lopes.

Among other initiatives to enhance salt, the DGPC also highlighted the recently approved project “Quinta Ciência Viva do Sal – cooperation, safeguarding and innovation”, supported by the European programme EEA Grants.

“The interest of young producers, some of them heirs of family salt pans, was also decisive for the change. The new generation was able to adapt and recontextualise traditional know-how to the circumstances offered by the current economic context, in line with the gastronomic and tourist potential that the activity offers”, the DGPC continues, adding that with this inscription in the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the entity “recognises as relevant the safeguard measures proposed for the enhancement and future viability of this practice, also valuing its articulation with requirements of sustainable development in social, economic and environmental aspects”.