Sunday, May 8, 2016

Taepyeong Salt Flats and Sea Salt Production

Traditionally, Koreans made salt by boiling sea water creating what is called “parched salt”, “fire salt”, “boiled-down salt” or “flesh salt”. With the demand for larger quantities of salt a new method was implemented—the usage of tidal flat salterns. These were first widely used in Gyeonggi-do, Juan, and Soreapo in the city of Incheon, eventually spreading down the West Sea coastline to such areas like Gomsoman Bay in Jeollabuk-do and Sinan-gun and Yeonggwang-gun in Jeollanam-do, with the latter two adopting pure tidal flat salterns that incorporated large-scale production facilities still in operation today. 

Unlike other salt flats in Korea, Sinan-gun and Yeonggwang-gun are unique in their production of salt—they use reclaimed tidal mudflats. The process begins at high tide with the sluicing of seawater into reservoirs. Once the brine reaches a specific concentration, the water is moved to checkered salterns made of silt and clay for natural evaporation which can increase the salinity from 2-3 parts per thousand to 17-25 ppt. This can only be done in fair weather, but when the weather is bad, the salt farmer allows the water to sit in the haeju (brine tanks). Fine warm days produce “A” quality salt crystals which are large and flavorful, but cool to cold weather results in slower evaporation and smaller bitter-tasting crystals, thus “B” quality salt—less desirable and therefore less expensive.

On average salt crystallizes between 1-3 days, but the whole sea to harvest process takes about 25 days. Salt crystals are then stored in silos for 2-3 years in which time the bittern is reduced and the flavor improved.

Jeollanam-do is the central region for Korean salt production. Sinan-gun holds a dominant position in the consumer market, and Yeonggwang-gun products are essential for related industries. The salt from Sinan-gun typically reaches the market after the bittern has been removed, which takes about a year, while Yeonggwang-gun products are mostly used in the jeotgal (pickled seafood) and gulbi (dried croaker) industry after a 2-3 year-long process of removing the bittern.

The salterns in Sinan-gun and Yeonggwang-gun date back to the very late part of the Joseon Dynasty in the 19th century when Japan first introduced the salt-making process. Until that time, these two areas were key sites for the then prevalent “parched salt” making methods, the method of boiling down water from seawater stored in mudflats.

Korean salterns consist of three parts—reservoirs, evaporation ponds, and crystallization ponds. Production facilities like haeju (brine tanks), salt silos, and resident facilities for salt workers are next to the salterns. Reservoirs are used for storing seawater, and evaporation ponds increase the water's salinity with the help of the sun and the wind. On the fields for crystallization, the saline water turns into salt crystals, but it takes 1-3 years for the salt to be sold as a finished product because the bittern first needs to be extracted in long-term storage.

Supposedly the tidal flats along the western coast of the Korean peninsula are one of the world’s five most important tidal flats (an interesting statement posted in the UNESCO documents but one which lacks development and is not, as yet, logical to me). Korean tidal flats contain a high proportion of organic material, and the diverse species in these estuaries help to increase the mineral content such as calcium, potassium and magnesium needed for quality salt. The chloride in it helps maintain acid-base balance and plays a leading role in digestion while the sodium regulates nerve and muscle function, blood volume and electrolyte balance. As such and well recorded in history, salt is used as a seasoning and food preservative and is the key ingredient for controlling fermentation. Accordingly, sea salt accounts for the majority of salt used in Korea, a country with many food recipes requiring the food preserving fermentation process.

The Jeollanam-do Salterns as UNESCO Heritage?

The unique salterns of Sinan-gun and Yeonggwang-gun have been submitted for consideration as a UNESCO world heritage. South Korea claims that their salterns are unique in many ways.
  • The haeju (brine tanks) are found only in Korea, where they have been built in preparation for the monsoon season.
  • The salterns mark the boundary between tidal flat and human habitats, straddling the line between nature and culture. In nature, they are significant as a fish habitat and a resting spot for endangered migrant birds like plovers and black-faced spoonbills. As the salterns are located in tidal flats, they are part of an ecological treasury having great biodiversity. They rejuvenate surrounding ecosystems by releasing vegetative matter into rivers which in turn helps feed aquatic organisms in the waters as well as providing shelter and sustenance for migratory birds.
  • In culture, they are a place for purification of pollutants (salt is traditionally symbolic of purification in Korean shamanism), and they are necessary for aesthetic appreciation and their more practical use—flood control. Culture came from rituals, traditions and beliefs that accompanied the salt production and harvest—farmers held shamanistic rituals called gosa to wish for abundant harvest along with making nodongyo (labor songs), distinctive songs to accompany salt production while working on their salt beds. Salt has also played a historical role for military purposes, architecture (soaking temple and palace foundation pillars in saltwater to prevent rot), and clothing.
In short, the continuance and preservation of the salterns ensures the continuance of the region’s ecological system, economy and local culture. Despite introducing some modern innovations like power equipment for transporting water, “the environment and natural salt production methods maintain the outstanding value of these saltworks as a living industrial heritage”.

Salterns Worldwide

Despite the majority of countries using refined salt from halite, a few regions worldwide still produce sea salt.
  • Guerade in France is well-known for its ideal climate—abundant sunlight, dry weather, sufficient wind from the Atlantic—for sea salt production. The region was registered in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance in 1995. Compared to Korean sites where salt is produced on a daily basis, the French salt marshes harvest salt every 2-3 days. In terms of flooring, the Guerade sites continue to use soil panels, but Korean saltern panels have been changed to include a variety of forms—soil, pottery shards, tile and plastic mats (hm, this last material doesn’t sound like a positive innovation).
  • In Savoy and Sicily, Italy salt is collected from fields only 1-2 times a year with machines several months after piling the salt crystals.
  • In Dapier, Australia, salt produced in large fields is considered an ideal place for sea salt production thanks to hot, dry weather, convenient proxemics to a port, and broad infrastructure for resources—namely, machines are used for all operations.
  • Japan, which introduced saltern production to Korea, started refined salt production in 1972. Since then, old salterns have all but disappeared, although it is said that solar salterns have recently been reopened in Kagawa, Okinawa. The Japanese extract sodium chloride from seawater by exchanging ions.
  • In Vietnam, salt is harvested 1-2 times a year in Ho Chi Minh fields.
  • Sea salt is also produced 1-2 times a year in Hainan Island, China.
  • Hallstatt, Austria—the location of old salt mines—was designated as a World Heritage of an ancient city. (Not clear if the mines are still in production.)
  • Wieliczka Salt Mines in Poland, another registered World Heritage, has a long history of salt mining dating back to the 13th century (again not clear if salt is still extracted).
  • Lakes, valleys, and wells in various locations around the world also produce salt. Representative sites include the Dead Sea salt lakes, the Great Salt Lake in the United States, Shenhai brine wells in China, and Yanjin salt valley on the Tibetan Tea Road.
With its distinct seasonal divisions and high rates of evaporation, excepting the winter and the summer monsoon season, Korea's multi-step evaporation method results in a quantifiable brine concentration for producing sea salt. “The Sinan-gun and Yeonggwang-gun tidal flat salterns in particular are among the most creative and advanced of the world's saltern heritage.”

Sea Salt—A Decline in Consumption

Many countries make sea salt—France, Vietnam, China, Portugal, Mexico. Though 250 million tons of salt are annually produced worldwide, only 700,000 tons are actually sea salt, and only 400,000 tons of that is salt created from tidal flats. Sinan-gun, Jeollanam-do accounts for two-thirds of South Korea’s sea salt production, and 850 salt farms are tidal salt flat producers in the dozens of islands within the county.

Industrialization has affected sea salt production while cheap salt imports from China and Australia have resulted in Korean sea salt production declining to a bare minimum. In 2006 China became the world’s largest salt producer steaming ahead of the United States, Germany and India. Prices for Korean sea salt since that time dropped from W12,000 a 30-kilogram bag to just W4,000. However, bay salt once considered a mineral is now marketed as a food and is therefore protected by legislation in the Salt Management Act—a law for taking care of the old traditions of Korea.

While it seems that China may be under-selling Korean producers of salt, another drawback to slow Korean sea salt consumption and therefore production was that “Sea salt couldn’t be used in Korean restaurants for the last 10 years because the government considered it a health risk. It wasn’t pure enough,” said of Jeon, one salt farmer. “Call it the case of the unknown percentage. Sea salt is 80-84% sodium chloride. It’s the other 16-20% that worries Korean health authorities, which lead to the ban of salt in the last 10 years.”

Korean food revolves around six key ingredients—soybean paste, soy sauce, red pepper paste, kimchi, salted seafood and salt. Of them, salt is the foundation of the other five. Salt—namely, solar salt or sea salt according to many Korean foodies—takes center stage for most Korean food. Solar or tidal flat sea salt is unprocessed, moisture-rich and contains diverse minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, kalium and iron from the evaporated mineral-rich sea water which was stirred by winds and kissed by sunrays. With its minerals which expedite fermentation, solar sea salt and good Korean cooking are arguably inseparable.

The many islands of Sinan-gun. The pinpointed mark is the location of Taepyeong Salt Flats,
the largest solar evaporation salt farm in Korea.
A closer look at the small island where Taepyeong Salt Farm is located.
Taepyeong Salt Farm

Taepyeong Salt Farm, in operation since 1953, is the largest sun-dried aka solar salt producer in Korea, although it only produces about 15,000 tons of sea salt from its spread of 67 salt pans. The number of salt pans is quite vast compared to the number on other salt farms, and its salt storage buildings are similarly impressive—60 salt storage buildings in a 3-kilometer linear placement.

The information signboard states that the Taepyeong Salt Farm was created for the relief of refugees and to boost domestic salt production after the Korean War. Taepyeong as Korea's largest saltern was created by connecting Jeonjung-do and Hujeung-do with a bank to create a tideland. 
The Stone Salt Silo now used as a Salt Museum at the,Taepyeong Salterns, the largest saltern in Korea (in Jeung-do, Sinan-gun) has been designated as a Registered Cultural Heritage of Korea along with Daedong Saltern (in Bigeum-do, Sinan-gun). Jeung-do, Sinan-gun is designated as a Tidal Flats Provincial Park in Korea, and is also a member of Cittaslow, the first town in Asia to gain membership.

The salt shed itself was made from stones mined from a mountain nearby. With the construction of a wooden shed in the 1980s, it was turned into a warehouse, and in renovated to its present function as salt museum in 2007.
Taepyeong Salt Farms has 60 such storage sheds that are in a 3-kilometer long linear line-up.
One of the original stone-built salt storages from 1945 was renovated in 2007 into the present Salt Museum. The inside gallery houses exhibits on the different types of salt, a brief look at the history of salt, cultural influences, and physical aspects like mineral content. Also are historical artifacts and dioramas of the 60+ year history and development of salt production according to the methods of salt production via evaporation. Of particular interest to me was a cultural tidbit on ancient health in a display focused on the beliefs surrounding the marsh plant that thrives in salt flats—the powerfully mineral enriched plant hamcho (Salicornia herbacea).

Recently to encourage tourism, a wooden plank walkway was installed around the farm to give visitors a chance to follow the walkway and learn about salt production as well as see some of the plants—including hamcho—that thrive in the mud flats. From March to November, visitors are invited to participate in the hands-on experience of raking salt in the salt flats. For W10,000 people can visit the salt museum, walk the mud flat trail, harvest salt with large wooden rakes edged with squeegees, and after participating in hands-on salt production, visit the storehouse and get a 1kg bag of Taepyeong processed sea salt. And the icing on the cake isn’t cake but a dish of salt ice cream topped with a choice of powdered flavors—green tea, mango, grape, or cinnamon. Delicious!

To keep the salt as "pure" from contaminates as possible, putting on purpose-specific boots
in a "clean" area are required of all participants.
Then we filed out on boardwalks between salt pans to the designated pans that we were to harvest salt in.
Grab a homemade rake with a squeegee on the end and let's get started!
Various participants gathered around each salt pan.
Ready, begin! The water and salt needs to be pushed toward toward the center of the pan and piled in a heap. It's best if there is teamwork and everyone piles the salt-water at the same time ... but we learned that as we went along.
Everyone can participate. If you can walk on the slippery pan, then you're qualified to push. Even an eight-month pregnant lady was pushing and doing her very fair share.
This little girl was our most active participant!

After we got a decent pile of course we had to play a bit. Traditionally salt carriers used the baskets to bring salt in from the field. Now people use shovels and trolleys on rails (pictured later).
Then it became a competition who could pick up the heaviest baskets!
And then photo-shoot time! Several salt pans disappearing in the distance and hard to see in this picture (the very low building to the right) are a couple of haeju (brine tanks).
Water was traditionally pumped into the salt pans via a pedal water-wheel. Very hard work. Our group took turns filling the pan with water after we harvested the salt from it. In another three warm days the pan will be ready for harvesting again.
Some modern renovations to make carrying the salt to the storage buildings easier—wheeled trolleys on tracks.  
Shovels were "traditionally" used but it'd be really hard to rake everything into baskets. Shovels certainly make the movement of heavy salt a whole tons easier!
Of course registering a few days prior to the activity is essential in order to be sure that a flat would have salt ready for the harvesting.

Taepyeong Salt Farm, registered as a Modern Cultural Heritage in 1997, and Sinan mudflat have been designated as Biosphere Reserves by UNESCO. And in 2010 they were collectively submitted to the tentative list as a World Heritage site.

Miscellaneous Info Related to the Salt Flats

For those interested in reading more on the historical insight of the salt flats in Korea, read the book Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty.

In Sinan-gun, the island Sinui-do, which was featured in a 2008 episode of the KBS2 channel's travel program, "1 night 2 days", is the largest producer of sea salt in South Korea. It is also the area where a man held as a slave to work the salt fields escaped from just last year (early 2015). In fact, there are five reports in the last decade of slaves escaping from the hard labor of the salt fields. In this time of “human rights” and rampant social media, the Kim Seong-baek story went wild and stirred up a lot of people’s sentiment.

Sources used:

Salt farm, full of history and life
Salterns (UNESCO)Taepyung Salt Farm (official site)
South Korean Salt Farming
Taepyeong Salt Farm (태평염전)
The Healing Power of Traditional Korean Foods 
The islands of abuse: Inside South Korea's slave farms for the disabled: Kim Seong-baek worked without pay as a slave in a salt mine

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