By Julia Bainbridge
Salt was one of the first things traded by mankind. Towns have been built on it. Wars have been waged over it. As anthropologist Margaret Visser pointed out in her 1986 book Much Depends on Dinner, “The word ‘salary’ dates from the Roman distribution of salt as a part of their soldiers’ pay; an inadequate person, we still say, is ‘not worth their salt.’” That’s how fundamental this crystalline mineral is to our very being—and to our pleasure. (And what is being without pleasure?)
At the top of the salt ladder comes fleur de sel, which literally translates as “flower of salt.” It is a hand-harvested, refined sea salt prized for its textural and mineral complexity. The well-known French Maldon is close—crunchy, salty without being bitter—but no cigar. Flake salt is low in moisture compared to fleur de sel, meaning the former’s flavor dissolves quickly on the tongue. Another step down the ladder comes unrefined, gray sea salt, which has not been washed of the clay or other sediments that the ocean carries with it. There’s coarse kosher salt, which most people like to use when cooking for its large crystals, which are easier for fingers to pick up and scatter evenly. It’s also never iodized, keeping it free of the harsh flavor that some claim they can taste in iodized salts. And, finally, there’s dense, granulated table salt, the majority of which has been treated with additives to prevent the crystals from sticking to one another. But fleur de sel should really be called la reine de sel, or “the queen of salt,” as nothing else comes close.
Fleur de sel is tended to like any crop. The most classic versions are produced along the saltier Atlantic coast of west-central France, in regions such as Guérande, Camargue, and Île de Ré, by channeling water from the sea through winding waterways and into shallow marshes, where it sits in the sun, evaporating, until crystals form along each pool’s surface. If the air is too moist, then those crystals will not form. If it’s too hot, then the water will evaporate quickly, and the paludiers—yes, those who harvest this specific sea salt have their own professional denomination—will have quick work cut out for them. Rain is also a real setback. In other words, a good fleur de sel harvest depends as much on the vagaries of the season as do fields of spring lettuces. Traditionally, only women were paludiers: The careful raking of salt crust without disturbing it significantly could only be entrusted to the fairer sex. While men also harvest in France today, as Mark Bitterman wrote in his book Salted, “many modern-day paludiers [acknowledge] that women can be faster and more precise than men in the harvest of fleur de sel.” All of it must be done during a four-month window of time between June and September, when the weather is warm and the seas are tame.
The final product is too expensive to be used as much else than a finishing salt. Even in tiny pinches, it’s a real game changer sprinkled on top of pasta, salad, a simple steak, or even a plain slice of bread with butter. Bakers and candy makers love the savory crunch it brings to caramels, peanut brittle, and chocolate chip cookies. Try it on a scoop of dark chocolate ice cream or atop a rich slice of pie.
Some will argue that only the French stuff is “real” fleur de sel, given the country’s traditions and standards of production. The label fleur de sel, though, is really meant to tell the buyer how the salt was made, and the simplest way to describe that is as follows: Fleurs de sel are the salt crystals raked from the surface of a shallow collection of solar-evaporated sea water. Given that description, there are plenty of great varieties to be found around the world, from Guatemala to the Philippines, produced in outdoor marsh ponds and indoor tubs. Ben Jacobsen of Portland, Oregon’s Jacobsen Salt Company hopes to put North America’s first fleur de sel on the market in the next two years.
But no matter where it’s made, if it carries the label fleur de sel, it’s definitely worth its salt.