In her book, "The Sea Around Us," the great American environmentalist and writer, Rachel Carson, wrote:
"When the animals went ashore to take up life on land, they carried part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origins in the ancient sea."
Seawater, as we all know, contains sodium chloride, or salt, making our oceans a major source of this important non-metallic mineral. It is literally "the spice of life" because we cannot live without it. According to "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee, "Sodium and chloride ions are essential components of the system that keeps our general body chemistry in working balance. They mostly remain in the fluid portion of the blood, where they balance the potassium and other ions inside the cells." As with most things, too much salt can be bad for you but the International Journal of Epidemiology says humans should consume between one and two grams a day.
The Salt Institute reports that there are "14,000 known uses for salt." Having used it to brush my teeth and as a paste to treat the pain and itchiness of fly bites, I'm not surprised to learn there are many more uses for salt. However, the most important of all has to be making food taste good. Used in moderation it can enhance the flavours and taste of any food. What's a piece of steak, chicken, pork or fish without salt - not to mention peanuts and popcorn? Without salt they would be bland and much less palatable.
As Michael Bateman says in "The World of Spice" - "Food is unimaginable without salt. It is the substance which, above every other, confers a savoury, appetizing flavour to the dullest food."
I went to the grocery store for some salt the other day and couldn't help noticing the variety of salts in the spice section. There was regular table salt, pickling salt and coarse salt, but I also saw the following: Memories of Sicilia Fine Sea Salts, Le Saunier de Camargue Fleur de Sel, Sea Salt from Spain's Mediterranean Coast, Cyprus Mediterranean Finishing Salts, Himalayan Finishing Salts, Hickory Smoked Salt and Celery Salt. I expected the hickory smoke and celery flavoured salts to look a little different, or darker, but I was surprised to find the Himalayan to be slightly tan in colour (apparently because of the presence of other minerals.) The Cyprus salt was quite white but not grainy. It was in the form of delicate-looking flakes.
The sea salts from Spain and Italy were the most ordinary tasting to me - although the Italian Sicilia salt was more refined and had a delicate aftertaste. The Himalayan had a definite savoury quality in aroma and taste. I was quite impressed and could see it making a tremendous difference to salad dressings and sauces. The famous Fleur de Sel from France was intensely salty with a hint of sweetness. I would use it on meats. The flakes of salt from Cyprus tasted clean and fresh and would improve fish and seafood dishes, like bouillabaisse. Celery salt (a combination of salt and ground celery root) is probably best restricted to the rims of cocktail glasses but the smoked salt (made from combining tiny bits of smoked hickory wood with salt) was delicious. It would be great on anything grilled.
Salt comes from two sources: seawater and the ground (where it's found in crystalline form.) Rock salt is the name given salt that comes from the ground. According to "Larousse Gastronomique," sea salt "is extracted from seawater by evaporation (30 kg per cubic metre.)" As for rock salt, "Larousse Gastronomique" says, "The dried salt lakes of Asia, Africa, and America constitute large deposits of rock salt. In France, rock salt deposits are found in Franche-Comte, Bearn and especially in Lorraine, where the salt works have been an important industry since the Middle Ages."
Flower of salt
Fleur de Sel (flower of salt) is regarded to be the ultimate in food salt. It's harvested in France from the salt marshes in Guerande on the Atlantic coast, as well as on the Mediterranean at Aigues-Mortes. McGee states in "On Food and Cooking," that Fleur de Sel "consists of crystals that form and accumulate at the surface of the salt pans when the humidity and breezes are right. They're gently raked off the surface before they have a chance to fall below the surface, where the ordinary grey sea salt accumulates."
Here's how master salt worker Claude Chacornac describes the process of harvesting Fleur de Sel for Le Saunier de Camargue at Aigues-Mortes on Le Saunier de Camargue's website:
"In the salt production, we also have our gold: the Fleur de Sel, irregular, fine crystals of an exceptional purity. I am proud to own the ancestral know-how of its picking. With lots of patience, I wait for the flake to form on the edges of the marshes. When the wind drops and the temperatures increase, it is then time for the manual picking with care."
I'd been a little skeptical about claims that different types of salt are better than others or can make foods taste better when paired with certain dishes. (Mind you, I've always believed vegetables cooked with Newfoundland salt meat are amazing.) However, having tried Fleur de Sel and the other salts mentioned, I have changed my mind. From now on I will be much more thoughtful about the salts I use and how I use them. For example, Fleur de Sel and the so-called "finishing salts" should be added sparingly at the end of the cooking process so that their unique flavour is best appreciated. Of course, given the cost of Fleur de Sel you wouldn't want to use too much. They don't call it the "gold" of salt production for nothin.' Enjoy!
Barbecued Salted Herring with Mustard Butter
Courtesy, "Taste - A New Way to Cook," by Sybil Kapoor
6 herrings, trimmed, heads removed and gutted
Fine sea salt
1/4 cup softened butter
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lemon, cut into 8 wedges
Run a knife down the fish tummies to their tails, then place, belly splayed open, on a board. Firmly press along their spines. Turn over and snip off their tails. Pull away the spines with the attached bones.
Trim the fillets and, using tweezers, tweak out small bones. Hold a handful of salt 12 inches away from a clean plastic tray and evenly sprinkle the surface with salt. Lay the fillets skin-side-down on the tray, then let the remaining salt sift onto the fish. Chill for 40 minutes.
Beat together the butter, mustard, lemon and parsley. Lightly season and spoon onto some wet non-stick baking parchment paper in the shape of a sausage.
Wrap up and gently roll until it forms a smooth cylinder.
Chill until needed.
Brush the fish with oil, season with pepper, then place, flesh-side-down, on a hot barbecue.
Cook for three minutes until seared, then turn and cook for four minutes, until the skin is crisp and golden.
Cut the butter into rounds and put one on each fillet. Serve with lemon.
Courtesy "Le Saunier de Camargue"
600 g codfish
8 big tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
60g black olives
3 tbsp olive oil
1 bunch of basil
Fleur de Sel "Le Saunier de Camargue"
Gently cook the onion with the garlic cloves until golden.
Reduce the seedless tomatoes cut into small pieces.
Cut the black olives in small pieces and add them to the tomatoes.
Heat the olive oil.
Add the chopped basil and let it infuse.
Cook the codfish in olive oil for three minutes, skin side down.
Keep them hot.
Put the fish in the middle of the plate, skin underneath.
Cover with tomatoes and olives. Pour on the edge of the plate the olive oil and basil.
Sprinkle with Fleur de Sel.
Salty dishes will not taste as salty when eaten cold.
Adding salt to veggies makes them firmer.
Pure salt will last indefinitely.
Carrots, beets, corn, spinach and celery are higher in salt.
As soups evaporate, they will taste saltier.
Grains of rice in a saltshaker keep the salt from clumping.
Salt Institute says the world produced 260 million tons of salt in 2008.
Egyptian mummies were preserved in salt.
Roman soldiers were paid in salt.
The word salary is derived from salt.
Use pickling salt for canning, as table salt will darken food.
Adding salt to shellfish toughens the meat.
Add salt to meats before cooking to aid carmelization and sealing.
Salt has been used to preserve codfish and other foods for centuries.