Mineral, savoury – A bit of spice for the wine

Everybody uses it on a daily basis; it’s essential for the human body and a must-have in the kitchen, yet we know very little about it. When we first came up with the idea of learning and writing about salt, we feared there might not be enough in it. Then we realised this topic is just as manifold and rich as writing about wine. Table salt, sea salt, Himalayan, Maldon, Hawaii – the ones we often hear about, so we wanted to learn the difference between them and the way in which they are processed. We brought four exciting salts from Culinaris – where we often go anyway when we need things other than the usual – and we also got a lot of help on the salt subject. What we learnt is:

 

Salt harvest

Salt is sourced from salt mines and from the sea. The refined or unprocessed salt from the sea and the ocean is often produced by letting the water naturally evaporate. As the water evaporates, the salt is put into cones by wooden rakes and allowed to dry out completely. As for salt mines, there are two ways to extract salt from them. This can be done in a similar way to extracting other minerals: by digging, cutting and blowing it up in the case of rock salt. It can also be obtained in the same way as sea salt is: water is poured into the mine to dilute the salt, then the water is pumped out and evaporated. Next it is refined, and depending on the type of salt, iodine could be added to it, for example. That’s how table salt is made.

 

Salt forms

Salt can be refined, come in flakes or as salt flower. The most noble is salt flower or fleur de sel, which is collected from the top of seaside salt dryers. Even in the best years, salt flower only constitutes 2 to 3 percent of the crop. People collect the salt flowers, which are rich in magnesium, calcium, iodine and trace elements, with a net from the top of the water.

 

Salt in gastronomy

The less the intervention, the better the salt is. The snow white, refined salt absorbs into meat better and that’s why its flavours are a lot stronger. It’s owing to its magnesium and calcium content that salt increases the salty feel of a dish. In a good dish meat is minimally salty. If something is salty then it’s the sauce, even the expression comes from the Latin “sal”. Salt lowers the tannin feel in wine and matches the more acidic wines. The salty taste in certain wine are provided by the nutrients and the minerals absorbed by the grape. In fact, wine contains such a low amount of salt that one would have to drink a 100 bottles to reach the recommended daily amount of salt intake.

 

Salt varieties

The list is almost endless. Most often it’s the place of origin that identifies the salt: Himalaya, Maldon, Camargue, Guérande, Kala Namak, Hawaii, and so on. At other times it comes down to one of its components or its colour: the Persian blue salt harvested in Iran got its name from its density. The Hawaiian red alaea salt is coloured by its iron-oxide rich colour. We – completely subjectively – chose four types from three areas:

Maldon Guerande Camargue Camargue

Maldon salt

Maldon salt is produced by the Osborne family in Maldon, Essex. It isn’t only dried by the sun and the wind but they also heat the sea water artificially. They filter and cleanse the water and heat it until the salt crystallizes. One of the most often used salts in high-end gastronomy, it has a unique texture: it consists of fragile, splinter-like flakes. It isn’t used while cooking, so only put a pinch on the dish before serving. When one bites on it, it has a pronounced salty feel that finishes quickly. Its smoked flavour comes naturally from it being smoked over fire. Besides making it more flavoursome, the smoke also colours the salt. The first smoked salts were made by the Vikings, who evaporated the sea water on cherry, elm, beech and oak in order to gain salt from it. Today, salt is only smoked at the end of the procedure and oak is only used for smoking a few salts, including Maldon. Sometimes they even smoke it over a Chardonnay barrel, thus beside the smoky flavour the salt also slightly soaks up the flavour of the wine. 

 

Camargue salt

Producing salt has a millennial tradition in the Camargue region. Rumour has it that a Roman engineer, Peccius, was the first who encouraged salt production near the estuary of the Rhone, in the South of France. Natural moors have a higher salt content than average that’s why the region was good for evaporating salt. Around the town of Aiques-Mortes they gather 300,000 tones of salt annually. A salty drop of water travels a 60 kilometre distance before salt is gained from it. First, they amass the salt into big evaporating pools. More than 45 million cubic metres of sea water is pumped out in March as the warming weather in the spring quickens the evaporation, thus the salt concentration grows by nine times. By the end of the summer, there is a thick, possibly 20 cm, salt layer on the water’s surface. The bright red colour of the top layer is caused by a special type of algae that colours the salt flowers. The time for harvesting the salt is September, the same as that of grapes. The salt piles, called camels, are collected into flat containers.

 

Guérande salt

People have been fishing for salt around Guérande for several thousand years. They call the salt worker a paludier and the ancient profession is passed down from generation to generation. The harvest usually lasts from May till September but at times it happens that they cannot harvest for years if the weather is not right. The salt farm works with the energy of the wind, sun and the sea but rain can easily demolish the harvest. They build the salt drying pools along the shore under sea level and they can commute between the rims between the pools. When opening the flood gates, they flood the first pool, the vasière, with sea water twice daily, at the time of the high tide. After some time they let the water into slightly lower lying pools (to the cobier, the fares and the adernes) and finally the salt crystalises in the last one, in the oeillets. Under ideal circumstances a few days is enough for the salt to crystalise from sea water.