“In it, we taste infinitude,” Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote of salt in Elementary Odes (Odas Elementales, 1954). Salt has been called the dust of the ocean and the essence of life. Salt is sacred. Entire civilizations have risen around it. It’s part of wedding ceremonies and religious offerings around the world. In Hawaiian tradition, the elders use salt as a purifier in all medicine and ritual. Our word “salary” is a daily reminder that salt served as legal tender in ancient Roman times.
Salt is vital to our health and well-being. There is nothing more elementally of this planet, and of who we are, than its shimmering crystals and its unmistakable taste.
But not all salts are the same. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, published in China in 2700 bc, discusses more than forty different kinds. And in recent years, expensive, glittering sea salts are replacing regular, cheap table salts in the kitchens of natural homes and celebrity chefs. So what’s going on?
The salt crop
Whether mined inland from ancient deposits or evaporated along coastal shores, all salts originate in the sea. In its natural form, salt consists of eighty-plus different minerals, including calcium, magnesium, sulfur, copper, potassium and yes, even gold. The stuff that gives salt its characteristic saltiness, sodium chloride, makes up about 78 percent of this highly variable mix.
Natural sea salt is harvested from coves, exposed rocks, or tidal basins. Artisan salt farmers often channel and rake the salty watersheds, then gather the exposed crystals by hand. Unrefined, this salt is ready for use just as it is.
Commercial sea salts are harvested mechanically, then treated with chemicals and additives until they measure a minimum of 98 percent sodium chloride. All the other minerals are removed. Far removed in manufacturing and taste from their natural source, these refined salts are like cheap wines–hard on body, mind, and soul, and better left alone.
In a recent survey conducted by Relais & Châteaux, 68 percent of chefs felt that salt is the one ingredient that can always make a food taste better. To many of them, nothing compares to unrefined, organic sea salt, dried in the sun.
“You use salt not to give food a salt flavor,” explains chef George Mavrothalassitis, owner of Chef Mavro Restaurant in Honolulu, “but to enhance and intensify the natural flavors that already exist. Regular salt is aggressive and takes away from the food. Natural salt is soft and sweet.” A Marseilles native, Mavrothalassitis relies on fine French sel de mer from Camargue, and for his signature snapper in a salt crust, he favors Hawaiian salt from the islands’ lava cliffs. He also prefers alaea salt, Hawaiian salt enriched with baked red clay. Chefs love alaea as much for its earthiness as for its rusty color. They may sprinkle it on seared white scallops or add a touch to grilled zucchini.
But for special meals with subtle flavors, one prized favorite stands out: Fleur de sel, the purer, whiter top layer of French salt known as the crème de la crème of all salts.
Salt in your kitchen
There are dozens of natural, unrefined sea salts on the market–as many as there are seacoasts in the world. While French and Hawaiian salts are better known, you can buy unrefined sea salts from Portugal, Spain, England, Wales, India, Africa and even the Black Sea. In Peru, salt is pink. Indian black salt tastes almost sulfuric. The Korean people make a roasted bamboo salt with yellow clay.
Like fine wines or olive oils, high-quality salts are expensive, but, as Mavrothalassitis says, quality has no price. “Fleur de sel sells for $3.29 an ounce, versus three pounds of kosher salt for $1.99,” points out Patricia Erd, co-owner of The Spice House in Milwaukee, Chicago and Evanston, Illinois. “You want to use fleur de sel as a garnish. In long cooking or in spicy dishes, delicate nuances get lost.”
Natural sea salt, like any handcrafted, natural product, may vary greatly in sodium content and flavor from brand to brand and year to year. Season to taste and remember, you can always add more, but you can’t take it out.
Focaccia with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Sea Salt and Olives
Serves 8 to 12
In Italy, that Mediterranean land of extra virgin olive oils, sun-dried tomatoes, and flaky salts fresh from the sea, focaccia may well be the ultimate, wholesome expression of the abundance of earth and water. Use a coarse sel de mer, or for finer occasions, splurge on fleur de sel.
4 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 package dry yeast (21/2 teaspoons)
1 1/2 cups warm water
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons fine French sea salt
12 to 20 black olives, pitted and sliced
8 sun-dried tomatoes (snipped into strips and soaked in water until soft)
French coarse sea salt flakes or fleur de sel, about 1/2 teaspoon
Make a sponge as follows: In a mixing bowl, process 1 cup of flour with the sugar, 11/2 teaspoons of yeast, and 11/4 cup of water until well blended. Cover tightly with damp towel and let stand until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
Sprinkle remaining yeast over remaining warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 7 minutes. Add to sponge, with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and mix well. Knead in remaining flour and fine salt to produce soft, pliable dough. Cover again with damp towel and let rise until doubled, about 11/2 hours. You can also make this dough in advance and let it sit overnight in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease a 17” x 11” cookie sheet. Turn out the risen dough, divide in two, and shape into rectangles to fit sheet, stretching dough and letting it rest as you go along. Punch dimples into the dough with your fingertips and press into corners. Press in olives and presoaked sun-dried tomatoes. Cover with a towel and let rise again for 40 minutes.
Drizzle with remaining olive oil and sprinkle with salt flakes. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown and cooked.
Italian Roasted Vegetables with Olive Oil and Sea Salt
Is there anything more delicious and nutritious than a feast of carefully selected and slowly roasted summer vegetables sprinkled with just the right amount of extra virgin olive oil and a dusting of fleur de sel? Use whatever vegetables are in season, adjusting oven cooking time as necessary.
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut in quarters
4 yellow tomatoes, tops sliced off
1 zucchini or 2 summer squash, sliced in long strips
1 small Japanese eggplant, sliced in strips
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped Mediterranean sea salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and rub bottom and sides of dish with a dab of olive oil. Arrange vegetables in dish. Sprinkle with garlic. Drizzle with half the olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and uncover. Sprinkle with remaining olive oil, parsley, and mint. If vegetables seem too dry, add a tablespoon of white wine or water. Cover again and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Garnish with sea salt and serve with grated Parmesan cheese.
Makes 3 cups
Salt brings melon’s sweet aromatic juices to the surface. If melons aren’t available, use mangoes. Serve the relish with heavier foods such as risotto, fish, and even beans. Or just eat a bowl for breakfast.
1 medium cantaloupe or honeydew melon, diced in cubes (2 cups)
1/4 cup sliced red radishes
1/4 cucumber, peeled and diced fine
1/4 cup macadamia nuts, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh ginger juice (cut off an inch of ginger root, grate it, and squeeze)
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 sprig mint for garnish Fleur de sel
Toss all ingredients together except mint and fleur de sel, taking care not to bruise the tender melon cubes. Place in bowl, sprinkle with fleur de sel, and garnish with mint.