In the beginning, our ancestors needed to find ways to preserve their food. Meat and especially fish was highly perishable and would last only a few days if not preserved. Populations that were fortunate enough to live by the sea discovered that they could make salt by the evaporation of seawater. Meat and fish were packed in salt and dried or in some instances stored in a salt solution, or brine. Food would remain edible and safe for weeks. Thus, salt became not only a means of enhancing the taste of food, but also preserving it as well.
Such salting method was man’s first method for the preservation of food. The earliest recording of salting as preservation method is found in the writings of Marcus Porcius Cato the elder, a Roman statesman from about 200 BC. While bacteria and the concept of germs were not known until the Nineteenth Century, ancient cultures unwittingly were killing harmful bacteria when they salt cured their meat and fish and thus had developed one of the earliest disease prevention strategies.
Over the centuries, salt cured fish became more than just a dietary staple; in some instances it assumed certain mystical qualities. During the middle ages, a time when spiritual and supernatural beliefs abounded, cured fish was believed by the Jews to be an aphrodisiac and was an essential part of the post-Sabbath celebration.
In the centuries following the Middle Ages Anti-Semitism flourished in Europe and the Jewish population fell on hard times. Herring was the most abundant fish in the North Atlantic and was quite cheap. Salt-cured herring thus became one of the staples of the Jewish diet but also became a symbol of bad times and a lesser class.
During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, however, when many Jews began to enjoy prosperity, they turned away from salted herring and its sad reminders and looked for foods that reflected their improved lives. Salmon was a fish prized for the tables of royalty, and Jews soon applied the curing recipes they had used for herring to this more luxurious fish. Salmon yielded a cured fish like nothing people had ever experienced. Its smooth, silky texture, its tender, delicate flesh and its subtle salty taste immediately made cured salmon a delicacy that is treasured to this day.