Sunday, April 7, 2013

La Gabelle: The Salt Tax

A cold wind with a temperature of 8 C. made the market yesterday afternoon quite unpleasant. I had made plans to meet Caroline for a coffee at Le President around 3 pm, so when I had finished buying veggies and still didn't see her, I decided to duck into the new brocante next to the patisserie to get out of the cold. I had no intention of buying anything. That good intention flew out the window when I spied this plate. I loved the scalloped edge and the fleur-de-lis around it. The crown and the green and white checkerboard also appealed to me. Not real crazy about the lions, but I bought it anyway. What was really intriguing, though, was its backside....

No doubt about its was made by M. Schoff in 1899. Being ever curious, I was determined to find out what I could about Francois Porcher in whose honor it was made. It appears that he was a counselor to the king and also president of the grenier a sel (salt granary) in La Chatre in 1698. La Chatre is a town in the Indre department about 300 kms due south of Paris. Other than to verify that this person actually existed, I'm not able to find out anything more specific about him. But I did learn some fascinating things about salt in my internet sleuthing.

Salt, as we know, is necessary for both people and animals. Before refrigeration, it was also a common way to preserve food and was a vital piece of every country's economy. In 17th century France, all salt had to be sold to a grenier a sel, a designated salt broker in each area. The grenier a sel set the salt's price, and then resold it at a higher rate to retailers. The salt was very heavily taxed. And each person was required by law to buy a certain amount of it each year, making it impossible to avoid paying this hated tax. Each region's tax was set at a different rate, so it was tempting for people to smuggle cheaper, illegal salt into their area for either their own use or for re-sale. Vicious penalties for smuggling, including death, made that a risky idea, though. Everyone had to pay the tax...except  the nobility, of course. Special counselors, like M. Porcher, were appointed to make sure this tax was collected in their region and that the buying and selling of salt was controlled by the Crown. In the employ of the King and also making money by re-selling salt to retailers, I think M. Porcher would have been a very wealthy man! The salt tax, la gabelle, not only helped keep many kings solvent, it also allowed them to live in luxury and excess.  Repeal of this oppressive salt tax was a leading motive behind the French Revolution almost a hundred years later!

The things you can learn from a pretty plate!


  1. What a fascinating post and a lovely plate! It's times like these that I see the truth in the old saw about clouds having silver linings. Amazing too, the stories that salt has to tell. Once coveted but hard to acquire, then taxed heavily and forced on les Francais in order to collect as much tax as possible, and now, both shunned and worshipped. That plate is worth its weight in 1698 salt. What a marvelous purchase.

  2. What a lovely plate made all the more intriguing by the inscription on the back. It was interesting to read about the salt tax and the horrific penalties involved for those trying to avoid paying it. I feel a story coming on!

  3. A fascinating story and what serendipity that you found that wonderful plate.