Mountains of Mediterranean salt
The salt pans of d’Es Trenc on the southern plains of Mallorca glitter like a silver sea. Hillocks of the mineral are piled up like heaps of white diamonds around the edges of the pans, much like the sand dunes that provide a natural wind-break to the virgin beaches of Es Trenc itself.
To see it in all its greatness, and in its purest form, it’s easy to appreciate why the Greeks saw salt as a symbol of health, wealth and happiness, and why in generations past, salt was as valuable as crude oil is today. The fall of the British Empire in India was due in part to a controversial tax imposed on salt; the American-British Battle of Bunker Hill during the siege of Boston was caused by a salt shortage; and in Italy, until quite recently, the government monopoly on the product meant that you had to go to specialist stores known as ‘Sali e Tabacchi’ to buy both salt and tobacco. The word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin root, sal referring to the gesture of rubbing thumb and forefinger together as if sprinkling on salt.
Strictly speaking the ‘salt’ that we need in order to live is sodium, trace elements of which are found in some foods. But without mined or extracted salt, our diet would have remained fairly bland. Of all flavour enhancers, salt is unequivocally the best. And yet, since the Eighties, the anti-salt campaign has seen it held up as the bad guy of the kitchen, held responsible for high blood pressure and conveniently generating a boom in low-sodium products.
Edward Behr, author of The Artful Eater, argues: “There is no evidence that people with normal blood pressure who avoid salt are reducing the chance of a future problem... I respect and sympathise with those who have to restrict their use of salt, but some zealous puritans would like everyone to cut down on salt because a small percentage would benefit from abstinence. These fearful proselytizers have no spirit, no joie de vivre. Does the sensual, the aesthetic, have no value in life?”
The point is, without salt we would have none of the hams and sausages, smoked fish and salted cod, olives and anchovies, cheeses and chutneys that distinguish our stock cupboards. In short, we would not have the luxury of the sybaritic hobby of gastronomy.
In Catalunya, the famed Salt Mountain of Cardona (www.salcardona.com) has provided one invaluable source of salt, but the majority of locally produced gourmet salt comes straight from the Mediterranean Sea; a region that is in a minority in terms of areas where traditional techniques are still used. Here, sea water is still being drawn into large shallow basins and left to evaporate in the heat of the sun. Most notably, these refined, gourmet salts come from the Balearic Islands.
Fleur de Sel, or Flor de Sal as it is known here, is the purest of all salts, popularised by the French towards the end of the 20th century in the town of Guerande on the Atlantic Coast. But it was probably the Egyptians who first began to extract these lively, highly flavoured salt crystals—hence the term ‘flowers of salt’—from the sea. In turn, the Phoenicians took the method to Portugal, and by the year 1000 the Portuguese were sending their highly prized salt from the Algarve all over Europe.
But it’s not really been until the last 30 years or so that various gourmet salts have become an indispensable part of a cook’s kitchen. Many serious home cooks and chefs now keep an ample stock of salts at hand, ranging from coarse kosher and sea salts to the more refined pin-head crystals of Himalayan pink salt; from smoked salts such as those of local manufacturer Carpe Diem in Alella on the Costa Maresme, which give nuances of barbecue to stove-top cooked meats. Then there are the so-called finishing salts, which include fine flakes like those of Maldon and multiple-flavoured Halen Mon from Wales, as well as the classical French-style ‘fleurs’, which have been rejuvenated as recently as five years ago by Spanish connoisseurs. Finishing salts are defined by the fact that they dissolve quickly and bring out depth and flavour in dishes like no other.
Fleur de Sal is always harvested by hand, by paludiers (the French term for salt farmers) and is comprised of the young crystals that form naturally on the extraction ponds or pans. Like in the Algarve, in the Balearics the pans were first extracted by the Phoenicians and Romans, and continued to be harvested on a large scale until around 1945 when they were more or less left to grow over and be forgotten—until recently, that is.
As salt has gone from being just salt to being a fashionable gourmet product, the pans have been resuscitated. The ‘Flor de Sal d’es Trenc’ that we know today is recognised as among the finest and most delicate salts in the world. It is sold in fine delicatessens and food stores across the globe and comes in four distinctive flavours: natural, Kalamata olive, Mediterranean herb—a pungent mix of local mountain herbs including marjoram, rosemary, thyme and summer savoury—as well as a flowery, summery hibiscus that lends itself particularly well to grilled goat’s cheese and peppery leaves like rucola and basil.
Ibiza meanwhile has begun extracting its own ‘fleur de sel’ based on a 2,700-year-old recipe. Here, like in d’es Trenc, the salt is extracted exclusively from the Parc Natural de Ses Salines d’Eivissa and slowly sun-dried before being gently ground to create a delicately aromatic, almost effervescent gourmet salt. Made by traditional methods, this salt is always harvested by hand, sun-dried and ground by 100-year-old millstones. The gentle extraction ensures that the finished product retains all 80 of its minerals, adding nothing nor taking away anything. Look out for the ‘Granito de Hierbas’, which is enriched with a 40 percent mix of local oregano, basil and rosemary: perfect for dipping with good, crusty bread and a fruity olive oil.
Recipe: Dorada a la Sal
(adapted from Alan Davidson’s Mediterranean Seafood)
Handful of fennel fronds/dill
1 pack of rock salt
This is a great party dish for the autumn and is wonderful served with sliced potatoes and onions baked in cream.
Ask your local fishmonger to gut a large dorada (sea bream)—enough to feed four, any smaller and the dish will be too salty—but to leave the scales intact. Stuff a handful of fennel fronds or dill into the cavity along with some lemon slices. Pour enough rock salt into an oven-proof dish big enough to hold the whole fish to form a solid bed of salt. Place the fish on top and pack more salt around it so that it is completely covered. Pat it down so it’s firm, and place in a medium hot oven for about an hour. When you remove it the salt will have formed a hard crust. Break it with a tap of a rolling pin or a hammer and pull it off. The skin of the fish should come away with the crust, revealing sweet, succulent flesh, lightly perfumed by the herbs.