Many locks, as I think I’ve observed before, can be persuaded to open simply with a smile or a couple of things I happen to have in my pocket. Not this one. The iron gate it was holding shut may not be as old as I’m supposed to think and the lock has a quaint look about it too, but it’s a good one and not easily susceptible to charm—and anyway the buildings behind the iron gate with the efficient lock are national historic sites, so it seems a better idea to peer through the bars and take a picture any way I can manage. It’s not the most artful composition, but it’s the only one I could get without making the acquaintance of the police.
The gate blocking the entry to the greniers à sel in Honfleur may not be the original, but certainly there has always been one and heavy wooden doors behind it. The salt barns were as secure as banks since salt was valuable… or simply expensive because it was heavily taxed. And Honfleur had a great appetite for salt. Perched near the mouth of the Seine, Honfleur was a fishing port and salt, to the fishermen, was more or less the same as a refrigerator. Salt cod would last for months and made the catch, which could not always be sold as soon as the fishing boats landed, salable and edible for a long time afterward.
The salt, however, was not local. It came mainly from Brouage in the department of Charente-Maritime, between La Rochelle and Bordeaux, though closer to La Rochelle to the north. That’s a long way from Honfleur. The salt traveled up the coast, around Brittany, then on to Honfleur, roughly 500 kilometres as the crow flies. If the crow takes a seventeenth century sailing ship, as the crow most certainly did, the distance may be about twice as much. Slow and costly to boot, to be sure, but salt was the heart of the business and of most diets.
Something as valuable to industry and to the taxing authorities needed to be under lock and key. Thus the iron gate with a good lock, thus the heavy limestone blocks of which the three original salt barns were built (one burnt down), thus the safety of 10,000 metric tons of salt in this fortress and the profits of the gabelous who paid the king in advance for the right to tax salt as they pleased.
These days, you can wait for a guided tour or, for a few more euros listen to a concert during the summer in the greniers à sel. They’ll be glad to open the gate for you.
words and photo © Joseph Lestrange
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