A cloud of dust billows in our wake as we crest a hill. The island of Pag, a grizzled finger of ashy karstic rock just off the northern coast of Dalmatia, stretches cinematically in front of us. A narrow ridge of land lies below: on one side, the mineral-blue sheen of the Adriatic's Velebit Channel; on the other, a watery latticework of salt flats that make up Solana Pag.
Salt might be the most crucial agent of flavour we have on our tables today, but in days gone by it was the difference between being hungry or being fed. One of the pivotal developments in civilisation, its discovery as a food preservative during the early years of the Roman Republic elevated it from commodity to valuable currency - it was used to pay soldiers (hence the word "salary"), as well as exchanged for gold. Cut to centuries later, and the Venetian Empire - the whole economy of which was built on the salt trade - monopolised all saltworks along the Adriatic coast, including Solana Pag, which became responsible for more than 10 per cent of the empire's entire economy.
Solana Pag is still Croatia's largest sea salt producer, its salt certified by the EU as a protected designation of origin (PDO) product - a type of geographical indication aimed at preserving the origin of foodstuffs. Here, the bura, a powerful northeastern wind, the island's barren landscape and its high number of annual sunny days combine to create a unique, slightly sweet-tasting salt.
"There's no official school to teach our trade, so all our skills are passed down intergenerationally," explains Sanja Stamenić, a manager at another ancient saltworks, Solana Nin. She runs a handful of salt through her fingers. "Most people who work here have learned the skills [to harvest salt] from their father or grandfather. Each and every grain we produce has been through someone's hands. We harvest our product in exactly the same way the Romans did, with sun, wind and patience."
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