Artisanal salt making: a disappearing trade

While the clientele of AlilaManggis is global, the hotel’s reach and impact in the community is local. To help connect its clientele to Balinese island life, one can arrange a visit to local salt makers.

Salt makers in the Manggis region have the reputation for making some of the best salt in Bali, perhaps in Indonesia.  The artisanal process is a relatively simple one, though the economics of salt making and hard work point to a probable decline in the trade.

Nyoman Warta is a fourth generation salt maker who learned the trade from his father, who in turn learned from his father.  They know for sure that the craft goes back four generations, though they suspect ancestors may have been salt makers even before that.

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Nyoman married twenty years ago WayanSueca, who also hails from a salt making family.  Interestingly, when asked about their two sons’ interest in the trade, they quickly admit that neither son is intending to continue the family tradition, nor are they particularly eager to force them into the trade as it is hard work for little pay.

The rhythm of the salt making work follows strictly the vagaries of the sun.  A rainless day lends itself to salt making.  On average, they can make 7 Kg of salt per day, which they sell to a “collector”, who buys from other single family producers and then sells the salt in bulk to market.  The price of their high quality salt has gone up over the past 10 years, to 30,000 rupiah per kilo ($2.60/kg), but it is still insufficient to keep the family adequately fed.

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The process is simple enough: they collect water from the sea and by day’s end, they rake the “salt” to be poured into a large filtering palm tree receptacle.  The key to making high quality salt is in the repeated filtering process which is enabled by the availability of volcanic sand as filtering material.  As new water is poured into the filter, a highly concentrated salt water is collected into a number of antique looking smaller carved palm tree hulls.

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When asked about where these come from, I get a blank stare.  These carved coconut tree hulls, which look like small stone bathtubs have been a family “asset” as far as they can remember.  The final step consists in pouring the high salt concentrate into sixty very shallow, 2 meter long troughs.  Finally, as the water evaporates in the sun, the salt crystals, shining like small diamonds, are ready to be bagged and sold.

I learn from Nyoman and his wife Wayan that they must supplement their family income with other trades.  This enterprising couple has over time developed several synergistic activities:  one sister cuts and processes palm leaves into a highly resistant, beautiful white paper thin material.  This rigid “paper” is sold in batches to buyers who use them to make shoes and others who make albums for the tourist trade.  Another activity is to collect dark grey pebbles which local builders use as decorative accents.  Yet another product consists in processing the local pandanus leaf into thin strips of weaveable material, once dry.  These are eventually woven into beautiful and robust sleeping mats, and sold to buyers who come by on an irregular basis

The couple lives with one son in their very humble beach side bamboo hut.  Asked whether working with salt tends to bring about illness, they laugh and say, through my interpreter “on the contrary, salt is good for you.  We are very healthy”.

AlilaManggis recognizes the fragility of this trade and does its part to elevate visibility for salt making.  How do the hotel do this?  Firstly, it named its world class restaurant Sea Salt.  Every table has a generous helping of organic sea salt from this area.   The center-piece decoration piece in the main dining room is a large palm tree hull, like the ones that are used by the salt makers.  All these efforts contribute to raising visibility for the trade.

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The hotel also tries to stimulate demand for sea salt in the form of gifts, by offering it in a vacuum-packed package in its Alila Lifestyle shop.  The vagaries of international travel complicate a bit the promotion of this sea salt as an export item, yet the hotel continues to experiment with packaging solutions to make this feasible.

It is hard to reconcile the drive toward development and growth all around them and the sustainability of this traditional trade.  It is easy to conclude that with one more generation, salt making at the household level will become a thing of the past.  For now, I marvel at the robustness of this family and their dedication to making the best salt on the island, a salt they are proud of and which their entire life revolves around.

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