Discovery: The Salt Road
At twenty years of age, I made the discovery that would change my life forever. I was somewhere in the middle of a very long, unstructured motorcycle trip across Europe, wandering from Wales to Slovenia, Vatican City to Denmark. My philosophy was that I should ride slowly, soaking up the scenery and stopping to look more closely at whatever caught my eye—a strange-looking tree, or a cow that approached the fence, or a toothless man. I’d maybe open a can of sardines and dump them on the crust of yesterday’s bread, cut a tomato on top, and stare at whatever was there to be stared at. Some of the time I would camp alone, but often enough I would strike up a conversation and find myself at 3 A.M. drinking red wine from a barrel at the toothless man’s cousin’s ex-wife’s vineyard, snacking on fried olives made by the ex-wife’s attractive but mean-looking daughter.
When I made my discovery, I was motoring along on the picturesque D836 road from Paris to Le Havre. In the mood to splurge, I began looking for a relais—the French equivalent of an American truck stop, offering traditional food at affordable prices. Unlike the United States, where chain restaurants now dominate the roadside, France still has a good number of relais that exist as distinctive local enterprises. They buy local ingredients, cook specialty regional dishes, and serve them with locally made wines and spirits; thanks to them it is still possible to eat your way across the thousands of miles of French highways experiencing the country’s dozens of traditional regional cuisines.
I rode for some time in search of a relais. Finally I asked a woman walking along the side of the road with a basket of beets under her arm. She pointed me in the right direction and minutes later I was seated at a nondescript relais drinking a glass of thin, crisp red wine and waiting for my steak.
The steak was superb. Firm in texture, like a fresh peach. With every bite the flavor evolved—from mild and sweet to something deeper and richer. The world floated away. I was one of Odysseus’ oarsmen devouring the sacred cattle of Helios. Mythic.
Transported, I asked the waiter how they made the steak. This, evidently, was not a very intelligent question—his response was to return to the kitchen.
I took a few more bites and tried again to engage the waiter, hoping to appeal
to his pride.
Our conversation went something like this:
“Wow, this is the best steak I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, ever.”
“I am glad.”
“Um, how is this steak made?”
“It is a steak, Monsieur.”
“Yes, but it is really good steak.”
“Um, so why is it so good?”
“Monsieur, it is a steak that has been grilled.”
“Where did you get the steak?”
“It is from Michel-Paul’s farm.”
“Yes, a man who raises cows.”
“Um, okay. So what else?”
“It is steak, from a cow. It is cooked with the grill, and seasoned with the salt.”
Aha! I looked at the steak more carefully. Hefty nuggets of opalescent salt were scattered across the surface, glistening in little wells of steak juice, each crystal a fractured composite of smaller crystals, within which were finer crystals yet.
“Where did you get that salt?” I demanded.
“That, Monsieur, is salt from Guérande. The owner’s brother is a salt maker. This is the family’s salt. They have made salt for hundreds of years in the traditional way.”
And there it was. By dumb luck and a simple appreciation for a steak, I had discovered the heart of the restaurant, its connections to neighbors, family, and ancestral ways of life.
After lunch, I called my friends in Le Havre from the pay phone at the back of the restaurant and told them I would not be able to make it that day. Instead, I rode off, fast now, gunning it toward the Brittany coast with the waiter’s directions to find the salt maker.
This experience was one of several that shaped my love and respect for food. I was beginning to understand that all ingredients matter—a lot—and that, in virtually everything we eat, major revelations await the curious. Salt! Who would have thought?
Over the next decades, I discovered that there are multitudes of salts in the world, that their forms are legion, and that the ways to use them are infinite. A sense of never-ending possibility has fueled my interest and frustrated my comprehension. For years after my great roadside discovery, my outlook on salt could have been summed up as, “Wow.” Yet over time my observations and thoughts—and my many conversations with salt makers and cooks—have coalesced into a greater understanding. From salt makers, I have learned how the most elusive and fleeting nuances of weather, ocean, land, and tradition are adamantine facts of the craft. Cooks have showed me how salting can become a portal into a more vital and personal connection to food. Both, in their own ways, are searching for truths as surely as any philosopher.
During that first long tour, and many subsequent ones, I picked up every imaginable type of food, from live eels to moldy cheese, but it was the salt that started to accumulate. Bags of salt would be tossed in cartons with journals, old pants, and spare motorcycle parts and secreted away. The collection was highly personal from the start. But over time it became more than that. Settling down with a family gave the salts space to breathe, and gave me even more time to research and cook with them. Old boxes were unpacked. Cupboards filled. Gradually the essence of my life took physical form: a lifelong pursuit of food and travel, curated in salt.Setting Up Camp: The Meadow
I had always thought of my wife, Jennifer, as an art historian. She had worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty, and the Frick Collection and was now the director of a major art gallery in Portland. So I was surprised when she said one day that she wanted to quit her job and open a retail shop: “I want to surround myself with the things I love most.”
What to make of that? My mind raced over the possibilities: Omelet pans? Lotion? Scratched LPs? Old Manolo Blahnik shoes? Paperbacks by Thomas Mann? Cups? Half-filled photo albums? Burgundy? Antique mirrors? Books on Tai Chi? Mint? Jennifer is not an easy woman to categorize. All I could think of to say was, “Well, okay, I guess. Do you think we could find a spot for our salt in there somewhere?”
I drove out to inspect the spot she had selected. Located at the back of a courtyard on an obscure street in an even more obscure neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, was a small storefront painted in dark purples, blues, and greens. It had track lighting that hung down at the perfect height to shine directly into your eyes, creating the effect of staring into headlights as you enter a tunnel.
I spent the next five weeks painting, building shelves from old-growth Douglas fir reclaimed from demolished warehouses, designing and installing lighting, and buying jars for salt—meshing the realities of hidden nails and splintered wood with Jennifer’s glowing mental image. We piled the newly built shelves and tables with buckets of fresh flowers, vintage vases, and jars of salt and hung the walls with a series of incredibly beautiful nudes drawn in Conté crayon, charcoal, and watercolor by a local artist. Then we invited all our friends over for a party, and opened our doors to the public.
Strangely, people were interested in our salt.
At the core of our business is an interest in sharing the excitement and pleasure of discovery. There are virtually no written signs in the store because we consider it our job to learn about our customers’ needs, then educate them in person about what we have to offer based on what we’ve learned. Packaging, no matter how well intentioned or smartly conceived, does a very poor job of conversing with a customer. Plus, talking to people about food inspires a degree of candor that normally takes several martinis to produce. Within the space of an hour I may talk with a chef about problems he’s having selling the owner on his passion for squid ceviche; with a tourist who is hungry for an intelligible and convenient way to make cottage cheese and peaches taste better; and with a neighbor who is surprising her husband with cassoulet for dinner.
This experience doesn’t get old with repetition because it never really repeats. When a visitor enters the store and says, “Oh! Salt?” I hear surprise, curiosity, and a tinge of something else—a bond being formed. It feels like we’re suddenly alone together, stranded in a strange space, trying to recapture something just beyond our reach, something like a déjà vu; and suddenly I have to try consciously to maintain an air of calm, cool collectedness. But—holding a pile of salt in my hands before a small crowd of people in The Meadow, surrounded by tables overflowing with seasonal flowers, opposite the chocolate shelves, flanked by a massive case bearing unusual wines, aperitifs, Champagnes, vermouths, bitters, and tonics, with a towering wall filled with more than a hundred artisan salts at my back—I sometimes begin literally to tremble.Salt: The Food that Time Forgot
For thousands of years we have been making salt from the sea or finding it in the land, and the world’s thousands of regional cuisines have evolved in concert with the availability and character of regionally made salts. For most of human existence, salt has been scarce in the extreme, difficult to transport, and of dramatically varying quality. Salt was, literally, a treasure, and everyone everywhere who could make it would. Yet salt making was a challenging, physically demanding, risky job requiring the participation of an entire community. The salts that resulted were unique, each bearing a mineral and crystalline imprint of the elemental and human forces that wrought it. Salt was a natural, whole food, intimately tied to a place and a way of life.
When industrial methods of manufacturing and transporting salt emerged out of the technology and trade boom of the mid-nineteenth century, the uniqueness of salt began to be lost. Salt is now standardized, found mostly in three or four variously-colored, rather hefty cardboard boxes in the middle of supermarkets so vast that potato chips and cat food have whole aisles to themselves. Salt has a small slice of a shelf, and the salts on that shelf are all variations of the two basic refined salts produced by giant chemical companies: vacuum pan salt and industrial sea salt. Over the last century, salt has become commonplace. Most people have come to consume it routinely and indiscriminately, while paradoxically they have stopped thinking about it much at all.
That has begun to change. The organic food movement that has swept much of the Western world since the 1980s has caused us to think more about how our food is produced: What is the environmental cost of producing and transporting food? How are we treating food plants and animals? How are we treating farmers? What is the nutritional value of our food? All of these ideas and a host of others cannot be contained in the single concept, “health food.” They have spilled over, and many people are now engaged in a far-reaching dialogue with their eating habits. All of this has helped shape and inspire a modern version of what might have been the first epicurean question mankind ever asked: What tastes best, and how can I make it taste better?
Thanks to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how to use salt well in cooking, its use today is expanding into foods formerly off limits. For example, fleur de sel caramels are sold in virtually every gourmet food store in the Western world. The combination has won over sweet-eaters and savory-eaters alike. Rare is the person who, after tasting salt in caramel, prefers it without. (The delicious—if less universally enjoyed—combination of salt and chocolate is also gaining popularity.) Salted caramel originated, or at least was perfected, in Brittany, where fleur de sel—one of the beautiful, artisan-made salts produced in the region—is sprinkled into the caramel in such a way as to keep the salt crystals from dissolving. If the salt were simply dissolved in cream before being combined with the burnt sugar, its deeper power would be lost. Instead of just salting to season, such salting is inspired by the salt itself—crystals, minerals, moisture, even the salt’s own name—to result in a food that is greater than the sum of its parts. This subtle difference marks a shift toward thinking of salt as a strategic ingredient. Cooks are asking questions: What do you want salt to achieve for the dish? What salt will do this job best? How shall the salt be used?
In this environment, all-natural salts are staging an extraordinary comeback. While it might be an exaggeration to generalize that artisan salt makers are regaining ground lost to industrial salt manufacturers, there are actually scattered small communities or regions where artisan salt making is reviving. It’s possible again to find a variety of hand-crafted salts.My Methodology: Choosing the Salts
Virtually every region in the world makes salt, and most have been doing so since before recorded history. But the vast majority of saltworks that produced salt over the last hundreds and thousands of years are now gone, first falling victim to the industrialization of food production in general and salt production in particular, and then suffering a dramatic demotion in importance as the standardization of salt eliminated any regional character of the salt. Salt manufacturing was subsumed by the industrial-chemical machinery driving the modern global economy. It is a commonly held belief that the advent of refrigeration has replaced salting as a major way to preserve food, but we are in fact more dependent on salt now than ever.
The bounty of artisan salts available in North American, European, and Asian markets today is the result of a variety of forces, not least of which is an interest in reconnecting with our culinary and cultural heritage. Most of the artisan salts we find on the shelves of our favorite stores are themselves products of a desire among individuals, communities, and governments to find purpose in old ways. For example, the hugely popular salts produced in the Guérande region of France were on the brink of disappearing altogether before the region revived itself through a series of shrewd business and marketing initiatives (page 28). Guérande now serves as a model for salt makers everywhere hoping to save or revive their own salt-making traditions.
Tea, wine, and spices are traded through highly developed channels by sophisticated, well-financed merchants. Artisan salt, on the other hand, sits mostly in obscurity, with few telling its story. Salt makers are far-flung artisans and are not, as a group, equipped to communicate internationally. Thus many of the most ancient, authentic, fascinating, and delicious salts of the world are, at present, nearly impossible to find for all but the most experienced researchers and adventurous travelers.
The salts discussed in this book reflect this pull between popularity and obscurity, importance and intrigue. I’ve made every effort to insure that the commonly available salt brands, the major salt-making techniques, and the best-traveled and most interesting salt-making regions are covered. But because these salts only tell part of the story, I also spend considerable time with salts that are difficult or impossible to buy outside of their local markets. Each of these salts has its charm, its history, its secrets. Even if you never eat them, knowing about them can give you a richer appreciation of those artisan salts that do find their way to your table.
In some cases, I will withhold the name or exact location of a salt maker to preserve proprietary information granted to me in confidence by an importer or exporter. In other cases, I might not be able to disclose some information for my own professional reasons. More often than not, I have thrown caution to the wind and shared my secrets, putting the best interests of the salt maker and you, the reader, first.
Excerpted from Salted by Mark Bitterman. Copyright © 2010 by Mark Bitterman. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.