As Bread Loves Salt, A Fairy Tale From Greece

written by Laura Beasley

There was once a king, more clever than kind, who had three daughters.

This king was constantly asking pointless, unnecessary, and unreasonable questions.   One day, while sitting on his throne and staring at the princesses, he began to wonder how they felt about him, to question their affection. The king blurted out, “Tell me; how much do you love me?”

The three young women looked away.  They knew their father insisted that his every whim be satisfied.  His oldest daughter gazed at her emerald and ruby ring avoiding his demanding eyes.  Her father tapped her shoulder, repeating his inquiry, “Tell me, how much do you love me?”

The eldest princess twirled her ring, twisted her gold bracelet and fingered the heavy gold pendant on her chest.  As she turned to meet his gaze, her long gold earrings tapped  her slender neck.  She answered in a rush, “Oh Father, I love you more than gold and jewels and silver and gems.”

“Good,” said the king.

His second child had pulled her chair up next to the window.  She ignored her father, absorbed in the action in the courtyard below.  The young knights and squires sparred with each other on horseback and on foot.  Armed with swords or lances, they were engaged in mock fighting. She could not decide who was the most handsome. Her father’s demand interrupted her reverie, “Tell me daughter, how much do you love me?”

“Oh, Father, I love you more than all my boyfriends and sweethearts and beaux.”

“Good,” said the king.

The king neared his youngest daughter, his dearest and sweetest child.  She pushed thread in and out and through cloth secured by her embroidery hoop.  Looking  down at her work, she hoped the question would not be repeated.  Her father knelt down at her side and gazed up into her face. With her, his demand became a plea, “Tell me, how much do you love me?”

“This is not the sort of question that a daughter should answer to her father.”

“Nevertheless, I demand an answer. How much do you love me?”

“I love you, Father, as bread loves salt.”

“As bread loves…” he sputtered. “ That doesn’t… Bread’s not salty!  That doesn’t even make sense!”  Grabbing the youngest princess by the elbow, he yanked her to her feet.  The embroidery hoop, needle and thimble tumbled to the floor as he pulled her from the throne room and down the steps into the courtyard.  The king dragged the princess through the castle gates and onto the public roadway.  The dusty road swarmed with people traveling this way and that. These were people usually unseen by princesses in castles: common folk walking with ox-carts, pushing hand-carts, and carrying bundles. The king scanned the crowd.  Which of the many desperate, filthy people should he choose?  The king gestured to the dirtiest man he could find.  As the poor man knelt, the king insisted, “You will marry my daughter, the princess.”

The poor man answered, “Your majesty, great are the stories of your greatness and renowned are the tales of all that you have done.  Why have you chosen me to marry your daughter?”

“I need explain nothing; you will marry her now.”  The priest was summoned to perform the ceremony on the public road.  The princess went off to live with the poor man and his widowed mother in a one-room hut outside the city.  Being a true princess, she made the best of her meager circumstances.  She worked hard, scrubbing, cleaning, preparing meals, and lovingly caring for her husband and mother-in-law.  Her husband suffered because, married to a princess, he couldn’t begin to provide the sorts of things that he thought she wanted.

For the next few months, the poor man found some work as a porter carrying packages in the marketplace.  One day, after meeting with a group of men, he returned home with something important to tell his family.  The princess was anxious to share some news of her own as well.  Being a respectful wife, she let her husband speak first.  He told them, “I’ve decided to go on a long journey.  There is a group of merchants who will be traveling in a caravan.  They need a servant, so I will accompany them. In time,  I may be able to make some money.  If I am ever able to send home money or food, I will.  I cannot make enough money in this busy city to be able to support you.  I have no idea when I will return.”

The princess knew there was nothing she could say to change his mind.  She silently kissed him farewell, sad that her husband was leaving. Understanding his decision to leave, she could not share her news with him.

After walking with heavy bundles each day, his work continued every night.  The poor man set up the tents, prepared the meal and carried water from wherever he could find it.  The merchants traveled many miles for long hours, waiting until evening to make camp.  One night, when the poor man went alone to find water, green noxious smoke rose up from the well.  He blinked as his eyes watered.  Floating above the surface of the water was a horrible green water-demon.  The terrified man bowed his head sputtering, “G-g-goood evening, sir.”

“Because you have spoken kindly to me, I will not kill you the way I have killed the others who have taken my water.  Instead I will give you a gift, but I advise you to open it only when you are alone.” said the water-demon.  With that final word, the monster dissipated into a cloud of smoke.  The man squinted as the smoke sucked back deep into the water.  When he opened his eyes, he found three pomegranates on the edge of the well.  He put the fruit in his leather shoulder-bag and carried the bucket of water back to camp.  The next morning, the poor man met a stranger who was traveling in the opposite direction. After describing where his mother and wife lived, he asked the stranger to take one of the pomegranates to his family.  The stranger was an honest man who located the small home and gave the fruit to the old widow.  In gratitude, the princess fed him bread and soup.  After he had left, the old woman said, “Let’s cut open the pomegranate and share the fruit, daughter.”

As the princess struggled to slice the fruit in half, she thought that the seeds may have hardened inside.  She was amazed when dozens of exquisite diamonds spilled out.  Now they could live in comfort and happiness.  They sold the gems and they had a palace built on the same spot as their poor cottage.  They built a magnificent fountain with clear water providing an oasis for lonely travelers to drink and bathe.  Many poor and desperate strangers appreciated the comfort received at the fountain.

After more than a decade, the poor man was ready to come home.  Carrying his modest earnings, he was astonished when he returned to the city of his birth and found a palace on the very spot where he had lived with his family.  Perplexed and confused, he looked through the window and recognized an elegant woman. “It is my wife!  She’s years older, but still so beautiful,” the astonished man blurted out.

As he continued to spy, the husband realized his wife was not alone.  She was joined by a young man.  She reached out, touching him on the shoulder and then embracing the youth.  In fury, the poor man gripped the knife in his pocket, ready to burst through the door and punish this betrayal.  He paused long enough to remember the many years he had been gone.   Although he had tried to send money and food, he had no idea if they had received any of it.  Maybe his wife thought herself a widow.  Maybe she’d married this rich young man to survive.  They should be left to their happiness.  He turned to walk away.

However, before leaving, the poor man changed his mind again.  Without knowing why, he followed a sudden impulse to push the door open.  His wife shouted in joy, “Husband, you’re home!  Look son, it’s your father!  Mother, come quickly!”

Before he knew it, the poor man was being hugged by his wife, his son, and his mother who had survived these many years.  They were delighted to be reunited as a family.  Confused, he asked them, “I don’t understand; why are you living in a palace?”

His wife explained, “But, you sent us that pomegranate full of diamonds!”

“Pomegranate?”  He began to remember what had happened so many years before.  Being a hardworking servant who never had a moment to himself, he had not sliced them open.  Having assumed the fruit had spoiled and dried up long ago, he had forgotten about them.  With his family watching, he opened his leather pouch and found the other two pieces of fruit.   When he cut them open, he saw that these pomegranates were full of diamonds as well.  Since the family already had a beautiful home, they used their new wealth to provide for the poor, desperate, and needy.  People came from far around to seek aid and support.

News of this generous and charitable family spread far and wide, even to the royal castle.  The curious king made it his business to meet wealthy strangers.  He sent word that he would visit them the next week.  The princess made plans to provide a feast to honor the king.  She instructed her cook, “There will be several courses, naturally.  All of the sorts of food you prepare will be wonderful.  But I have some specific instructions regarding the first course.  The first course should include bread and meats.  These need to be prepared with absolutely no salt.”

“But, mistress, this is not a good idea.  The meat will taste so bland.  But, the bread!  The bread will be even worse.  Bread without salt will crumble and collapse.  It will look horrible and taste strange,” said her cook.

“Nevertheless, this is what I want,” said the princess.  The feast was prepared, and the first course was served.  The king sat with his vizier at the head table.  The princess, wearing a veil, attended to her guests.  She inquired of her guest of honor, “How do you like the food, your Majesty?”

“It’s quite unusual,” replied the king.  “I don’t think I have ever had food exactly like this before.”

The hostess reached into her pocket and took out a little sack full of salt.  “That’s because everything in this first course, even the bread, was made without salt.  You do not notice the taste of salt in most bread, but even a little bit…”  She pinched some of the salt between her fingers and let it fall through the air.  “Even a teaspoon of salt in a loaf of bread will change it so much.  The salt helps stop the yeast from overgrowing so that the bread will rise but not spill all over the oven. The loaf becomes strong, sturdy, and shapely.  Without any salt at all, the bread will be crumbly and taste sour.  Every good cook knows that bread loves…”

The king interrupted, “Wait!  That bread loves salt.  When someone told me that years ago, I didn’t know what she meant.  She was my youngest daughter, the daughter that I lost because of my stubborn foolishness.”

The hostess lifted her veil, “Father, I am not lost.”

Daughter and father embraced because she still loved her father as bread loves salt.

3 thoughts on “As Bread Loves Salt, A Fairy Tale From Greece

  1. I am glad that you enjoyed my version of this folktale Laura which I have been telling to elementary students for more than ten years. If I were to tell it to you today it might sound a little different. There are more than a thousand versions of “Cinderella” and I imagine there were hundreds of versions of the “meat loves salt” folktale even in Shakespeare’s time. I think I have seen a book that parallels folktales and Shakespeare’s stories. My mother made bread and told me that bread tasted weird when you forgot to use salt. I did a little research in some cookbooks that confirmed my childhood memory. It is fun to to hear someone else confirm this interesting fact! When I tell the story I like to bring out a salt cellar at the end of the story and use it as a prop.

  2. Lovely story, Laura. It seems to be a variant on King Lear to me, do you know if Shakespeare started from the same Greek source? I love the bread/salt because Mike and I like to make bread and know what you mean about salt. I had to try strange variants when I was on Iodine restriction because they said I couldn’t eat bread from the store or use any salt, not just salt with iodine added. Luckily the govt has some sites with recipes for iodine restricted patients. But the bread was not very good; it needed its salt!

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