Salt roads

May 22, 2013 / Food & Wine
Varzi, Lombardia

viadelsaleParma, situated in the Po Valley of Northern Italy, is world famous for its food products: the Parmesan cheese and the prosciutto ham, both names protected by European law. As it happens the production and preservation of these two mouth watering delicacies requires salt, lots of salt.

In this Parma is fortunate to be located, probably not accidentally, near the brine sources of Salsomaggiore, already taken into production by the Romans and revived in the times of Charlemagne. But, contrary to the ham makers, the picky cheese makers of Parma preferred the courser coarser sea salt, of the area around Venice and Ravenna (Comacchio and Cervia) or imported from even further areas via the port of Genoa.

via_del_saleIn the latter case the salt had to be transported over land, over the hills and mountains of the Apennines by entire caravans of mules. In the 16th century the Farnese family is said to have employed over 5000 mules to satisfy their needs (source: Salt – A World History – Mark Kurlansky – Penguin Books 2003). There was no fixed route for the transport from Genoa to Piacenza, where the heavy load was put in barges and carried to Parma via the Po river. Instead, a whole range of so-called salt roads existed, carrying the precious load via different duchies and principalities, avoiding high taxes (smuggling) or enemy territory. And there were other salt roads going to Pavia and Milan and other cities as well.

Today, it is possible to (partly) follow some of these itineraries that will carry you through the beautiful Valle Staffora of the Oltrepò Pavese and the Valle Trebbia of Emiglia Romagna. Along the way you pass the historical cities of Varzi in Lombardia with its medieval center and Bobbio, resting place of San Colombano.

© 2011 by Tomasz Sienicki
© 2011 by Tomasz Sienicki


Stef Smulders

by Stef Smulders

Stef is a Dutch expat now living the dolce vita in the Oltrepò Pavese wine region, an undiscovered Tuscany 50 km south of Milan. 

With husband Nico & dog Joia he runs a B&B Villa I Due Padroni (

Stef has just completed his first book about his experiences in Italy during the first few years (in Dutch).
An English translation will appear later in 2016. Interested? Send me a mail and have a look at my Facebook page.

5 Responses to “Salt roads”

  1. Rosemary

    Fascinating note! We were so interested to learn about Perugia’s role in the “Salt Wars” when they lost a battle with Pope Paul over this precious ingredient and lost 1/4 of their city – now the marvelous underground “Rocca Paolina” that I wrote about in this post:

    Italy is filled with so much history and so many amazing places it would take a dozen lifetimes to explore them all! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!

  2. Let’s get the nit out of the way: “Coarser” not “courser.”

    The early availability of salt was one of several confluences that gave us the perfect confluence of cheese, cows and pigs in the Po Valley. Grass to graze the cows, pigs to raise on the whey of their milk, salt to cure the Parmigianno cheese, and the cold moist air of the Alps to cure the Prosciutto in the fragrant woods of the Apennines.

  3. Tricia Reynolds

    Ronald — Quite right on “Coarser”, but “Parmigianno cheese” with two “n’s”?

    Nice note, Stef. Surely the North of Italy has always had to work a lot harder for “la dolce (o salata) vita”. The South has other hardships to bear, but is spoiled by the ease and abundance of many things. Visit both, and it evens out.

    Tricia, Napoli


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