Every culture uses some form of it—and has for centuries. In fact, sea salt has been around since pre-Biblical times. But it wasn’t used solely in cooking. Egyptians used salt to preserve mummies and Greeks used it as currency, measuring it out to pay for slaves (hence the expression ‘worth its weight in salt’). But it is as a flavouring that salt really gained value. Not only is that modest NaCl one of the five basic tastes, but salt also enhances the others, making it a cooking essential. However, not just any salt will do. While common table salt (which is mined from rock salt and then refined until only sodium chloride is left) fills the shakers of most North Americans, most chefs prefer sea salt (harvested by leaving ocean water in large shallow basins, allowing the sun to evaporate the water). If the oceans are vast, the range of sea salts are equally so. From the oceans of the North to the South Pacific, each body of water has unique properties that imbue its salty harvest with distinct properties.
The French fleur de sel (literally flower of salt) may be the most famous of all the sea salts. Traditional paludiers (salt farmers) handharvest the salts from the surface of evaporation ponds. Because it may contain traces of magnesium, calcium, potassium, copper and iodine, connoisseurs can detect a subtle mineral taste in the salt. True fleur de sel comes from the town of Guérande in northwest France (among a couple of others), but artisanal salts farmed from different coasts are equally good.
Maldon salt, for example, is harvested on the east coast of Essex in England and is one of the best-known high-end sea salts. There, the perfect storm of low rainfall, strong wind, bright sunshine and low-lying marshland creates salty waters ideally suited to farming. Centuries ago, the salt water was collected from shallow, marshy pools and then boiled slowly over wood fires for hours. The smoky fires signalled passing fishing fleets, which would often come to shore to trade or buy the precious commodity.
In the South Pacific, Hawaiians use a traditional sea salt called alaea to flavour and preserve food. The salt takes its name from the red, volcanic clay (Alae) that is added to the salt as it dries, enriching it with iron oxide.
Professional chefs keep bowls of coarse salt on hand because, unlike more refined grains, these large crystals are more readily measured by hand. Sel gris is a coarse salt with a grey pallor, thanks to its high mineral content. Others, like La Baleine, Salins du Midi (from the French Mediterranean) are pristine white.
The newest and trendiest salts, however, are those infused with other flavourings. Salt crystals naturally smoked over wood fires, for example, give a unique smoky flavour to barbecued meats and fish. Other salts bear the distinct zest of lemon, rosemary and even black truffle (an unbelievable addition to scrambled eggs). Gourmet stores and websites such as saltworks.us have a full array of salt choices. You’ll never reach for that boring old salt shaker again.
Baking fish in a salt crust produces an incredibly succulent poisson. The salt seals in all the moisture, allowing herbs to fully permeate the flesh while imparting a delicate hint of saltiness
Ingredients (Serves 4)
- 2 whole red snappers, cleaned, head and tail, about 1¼ to 1½ lbs each ½ lemon, sliced into thin wedges
- 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 12 black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 lbs fine sea salt
- 1½ cups water Extra-virgin olive oil
- Preheat oven to 400º F.
- Stuff cavities of both fish evenly with lemon, rosemary, peppercorns and bay leaves and set aside.
- Line a baking sheet with foil.
- Place salt in a bowl and stir in enough water to make it feel like damp ‘packing sand.’ Make a layer of salt about the size of each fish on the baking sheet, leaving as much space as possible between the fish. Lay each fish on top of salt and pack remaining salt over fish so they’re covered completely. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes. Use the back of a spoon to crack salt crust, and brush away excess salt. Fillet fish and serve drizzled with olive oil.