Most of us are on some kind of budget where we must be selective in our extravagances. Sometimes I just don't want to "refine my tastes" for fear of creating another expensive habit. I know certain wines are so much better than others. And, if consumed regularly, would ruin me for the more ordinary fare that is within my budget. As roasters, we know some feel the same way about coffee. We must pick our passions. Luckily, Fleur de Sel (an admittedly expensive salt) is "worth the salt" and, if used properly, within the budget as well.
I just came back from a trip in France where I was lucky enough to visit the salt marshes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone River Delta called the Carmargue. It’s a gorgeous lunar landscape filled with what seems like miles of channels and marshes dug for the harvesting of sea salt. This area was used for salt harvesting by the Romans as far back as 102 BC and produces half the salt used in France today (not to mention home to fabulous rice, wild white horses, buffalo and even flamingos). Here they produce many grades of sea salt. Fleur De Sel is the one that will make you swoon.
(The pink color is due to tiny crustaceans and algae. No worries, all gets filtered out:)
What’s so special?
Fleur de Sel begins with salty Mediterranean water being carefully guided into shallow marshes through a series of intricate waterways. Along the way the water is held in a basin, called a vasière, where fish, eels (and everything else you don’t want sprinkled on your tomato) is filtered out before being guided down into another series of increasingly narrow channels. Ultimately this water--now about 10 times saltier than when it began its journey--flows into the marshes, called œillets.
In the marshes, the water begins to evaporate from the bright sun and ocean winds until a fine crusty layer of salt collects on the surface. This is the Fleur de Sel. It is called “flower of salt” because of the faint smell of violets that drifts from these prized white crystals.
It is harvested by hand-raking it with a lousse à de fleur, which is designed to disturb the tender crust as little as possible. This is done by specialists, called paludiers, and was a job formerly entrusted only to women as men were thought to be too rough to do such fine work.
Traditionally, once harvested, the women would gather the salt into large bowls, or gèdes, weighing 65 pounds, and carry it to the shore perched on their heads. Now, of course, trucks do the transporting, but the salt is still hand-harvested using traditional methods.
Much ado about nothing?
I ask you to try this. Slice a tomato, avocado, cucumber, whatever… Perhaps add a little olive oil. Now sprinkle some Fleur de Sel on one slice and ordinary table salt on another. Close your eyes and take a bite of one. Then the other. Repeat. I won’t tell you what you should or should not taste, but I’m hoping it’ll change your life in some small, wonderful way.
After this test if you fear you've slipped into another expensive habit, take heart. Fleur de Sel is strictly a ‘finishing’ salt, used only after cooking as a final flourish over salads, vegetables, meats and fish, and—yes—fruit. If you’ve never sprinkled a little sea salt on a mango, melon or a peach, go run and do that now. I daresay it’s a life-altering event. And—I’ll stop after this, promise—if you haven’t had Fleur de Sel on baked goods, chocolate or caramels, you might want to save that luxury for another day. The more adventurous will try it on smoothies, soft cheeses, and yogurt lassis.
But shouldn’t we be eating less salt?
Well, sure. A couple things though: Fleur de Sel is lower in sodium than regular table salt, it is full of minerals, and you only need a small amount. The amount of salt is not great, particularly when you compare it to the amount of sodium in everyday processed foods. And then there is the best defense: enjoyment—or “salt”—of life. (In Italian, French and Spanish they use the term “salt of life” instead of “spice of life” to denote something that makes life worth living.) Go out for a walk, play some tennis, but enjoy a bit of wonderful salt on your end of summer tomato.
Stop by Six Depot Café, where we carry organic Fleur de Sel de Guerande (the most highly prized) or buy it in our online shop. Side note: we also bought other fabulous items from France (some still arriving): dried forest mushrooms, artisan vinegars, mustards, oils and wonderful confit that are perfect for pairing with cheeses, and are working on importing some of the wonderful red and black rice from the Carmague.
Can't get enough?
If you haven’t read Mark Kurlansky’s “Salt, a World History” yet, you might like it. Not so much about the harvesting of salt as it is about how salt has shaped civilizations and even world events. Salt has been highly valued throughout history. The Egyptians used salt in their funeral offerings; the English word salary and the French word salaire come from the Latin salarium, which referred to the money paid to soldiers so they could buy salt. In medieval times, the importance of a person was defined by nearness to salt: the rich were seated at dinner above the saltcellar, those less fortunate, below the salt. Salt has even influenced where cities are built. Salzberg, in Austria, was established near salt deposits, its name literally meaning Salt City. They say Napolean retreated from Russian on account of salt. You'll never look at salt the same way again.