The Cream of the Salt Pan

Fleur de sel, the best salt in the world, suddenly got less expensive 
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A few years ago the proprietor of my favorite Boston gourmet shop came up behind me and put something white into my basket. It was a two-pound bag of salt. "We just got this in from France," he said. "Fleur de sel, like no other salt you've ever tasted. So sweet, so creamy, so good, you won't believe it." His eyes burned with enthusiasm. "Please try it," he said.

I knew fleur de sel from a trip to the rocky Brittany coastline, where workers rake salt from shallow waters in an ancient tradition practiced almost nowhere else. And, I was told, no other salt tasted so rich and fresh. The chef I had come to see, Olivier Roellinger, sprinkles the moist, gray-white crystals on a number of the superb seafood dishes he serves at Les Maisons de Bricourt, his inns and restaurants in the village of Cancale, near Mont-St-Michel.

I had long before left ordinary supermarket salt behind for kosher salt, which has a far gentler flavor with no nasty iodine residue, and whose quantity is much easier to control and judge while cooking. But the fleur de sel—from Guérande, on the Atlantic coast—was a revelation, with distinct mineral tastes and a roundness of flavor I hadn't thought possible from salt. The crystals slightly pricked the tongue and then dissolved, leaving a flavor nearly as sweet as it was salty—a mysterious and marvelous sensation.

I didn't find fleur de sel for sale in this country until the proprietor slipped me that bag. I got an idea of why it had taken so long to reach U.S. shelves when the cashier cheerfully told me what I owed her. "You must have added wrong," I said. "I have only some cheese and the salt." "No," she said. "The salt is sixty-one dollars."

It took me a while to recover. In the meantime, salt became the newest weapon in the ever shifting gourmet-chic wars. Fleur de sel is now an essential prestige ingredient on American menus, dusted over a dish at the very last minute so that the diner will have the pleasure of the slight crackle and then the quick, delicious melting. Books celebrating salt appeared. The best for cooks is Salt & Pepper (1999), by Michele Anna Jordan, unfortunately out of print but easily obtainable. Mark Kurlansky, the author of the entertaining and erudite Cod (1997), has just published a natural companion, Salt: A World History. As happens with so many things in the gourmet world, salt became baroque. I started seeing high-priced little bags of colored salt—a designer aberration that seldom has anything to do with flavor—and, much worse, spiced and flavored salt.

Chic aside, fleur de sel continues to offer a matchless culinary experience. Last August, in Portugal, I discovered an even sweeter, whiter, and not incidentally much less expensive fleur de sel than the one that comes from Brittany. It is harvested by young and idealistic marine biologists whose intention was to produce algae.

The driving force behind Necton, the Portuguese company that harvests the salt, is the very energetic João Navalho, who was born in Mozambique of Portuguese parents and moved to Lisbon as a child. While earning a graduate degree in aquaculture, he and a friend, Vitor Verdelho, won a grant to look for new ways to harness Portugal's natural resources. Bargain-rate planeloads of German and English tourists should not be alone in taking advantage of the Algarve's sun and sea, the graduate students thought. Those vacationers didn't help the environment, and neither did the big hotels and developments built speedily and carelessly to house them.

The students wanted to use new technology to produce large quantities of algae rich in beta-carotene, which is valuable to food manufacturers who want a safe, non-chemical orange dye. In 1994 the pair began looking for a part of the coastline with maximal sunlight and plentiful clean seawater. After several years of searching they found the spot: thirty-seven acres of salt marsh in the protected National Park of Ria Formosa, just a few miles from the Atlantic and very near the tourist centers of Olhão and Faro. In 1997 the two, by then recent graduates, formed Necton. A few grants and their education constituted their capital, and they ran the company on socialist ideals: all workers, whatever their position, would be stockholders and would share profits. Then their plans took an unexpected turn.

For thousands of years salt had been a chief reason that people came to this part of the world. The Egyptians were probably the first to evaporate seawater methodically in order to extract salt, and the Phoenicians probably brought early salt-gathering technology to the Portuguese coast. The presence of Roman ruins in the Algarve suggests that the Romans produced salt there; certainly by the year 1000 the Algarve was sending salt to the rest of Europe, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries salt helped Portugal to consolidate its position as a world power.

But the peoples of Northern and Eastern Europe learned to mine rock salt in caves, and by the mid twentieth century mechanization in the mines and cheap transport made sea salt comparatively expensive. Mechanization arrived for sea salt, too, and after World War II the marenotos, salt gatherers of the Algarve, largely abandoned their work tending man-made salinas (salt pans) to find jobs in factories and cities. Navalho and his co-workers were disturbed to find that small abandoned salt pans on their own and adjoining property had become communal dumping grounds.

"The place was like a desert," Navalho told me, as he took me on a tour of the sandy flats around the greenhouselike laboratories where Necton grows algae. "I like to see flamingos and birds. If you don't fill the pans with water every year and you're not taking care of them every day, they'll be dirty, dry, and ugly. And the birds will be gone. Not just flamingos but avocets, plovers, egrets, dozens of others."

Necton's first commitment was to the environment, and that meant keeping the wetlands wet. So plans for algae laboratories waited while the salt pans were put back in order. Necton already employed a marenoto, Maximino Guerreiro, who took care of an industrial-scale salt pan on the company's property. Guerreiro cleaned out the clay-bottomed small pans, which are laid out in a winding patchwork following the border of the tidal-marsh area. Working with young apprentices from Eastern Europe, he cleared the channels that allow water to run between the pans, fed by gravity and controlled by gates. The ancient practice, still followed today, is to let seawater evaporate in progressively smaller, shallower, and lower pools—the salt pans—until the salt is so densely concentrated that workers can just scoop it out of the water. The salt is harvested every five to seven weeks, depending on the heat of the sun and the force of the drying north winds.

I watched as Guerreiro and three shirtless young men bent over shallow rectangular pools of seawater dense with salt, using wooden rakes to draw the salt to the sides of the pans. This was traditional sea salt, the kind that the marenotos had collected by hand. Any pebbles or twigs would be sieved out, and the salt would be packaged just as it came out of the pans, its mineral content intact. Mechanically harvested sea salt must be washed and purified to rid it of potential contaminants introduced by machinery; the process robs it of some of its healthful minerals and many of its micro-nutrients. The pyramid-shaped piles of salt the workers had built up at the sides of the pans over the previous days looked like miniature Alps on a blinding winter's day. It was a disorienting image on such a hot morning.

After they broke for lunch and a siesta, the young men returned to the pans. They had exchanged their rakes for long-handled skimmers that looked something like butterfly nets. Again they bent over the water, but now they worked more slowly and deliberately, looking for irregularly shaped micalike formations skittering along the surface, visible only if viewed at the right angle, glinting in the sun. This was fleur de sel, The Cream of the Salt Pan—called flor de sal in the Algarve. The neonate crystals float for only a few hours, and must be skimmed quickly and daily, before they precipitate to the bottom. I put my hand in the water, which was less than a foot deep, to skim out what looked like an oversized dragonfly's wing. I crumbled the fragile wet crystals and licked some salt off my fingers. It vanished as fast as if it were indeed snow. The flavor was wonderfully sweet and nuanced.

At the end of the first summer Necton had a crop of dazzlingly white salt. The young directors were thrilled. Then they tried to sell it, and quickly realized why the pans had fallen into such a sorry state.

According to Portuguese law, Necton can't even sell its salt for the table, let alone get anything like a fair price for it. In 1973 the government set standards defining three classes of salt. The highest class is pure sodium chloride—what industry wants, as a primary ingredient for glass, paints, batteries, explosives, and glues. This is also the salt most people buy for the table. Additives such as iodine and fluoride are allowed in table salt, and so are potassium cyanide and aluminum silicate—anti-caking agents that prevent the refined salt from turning to stone. The second class is 96 percent sodium chloride, and the third is below 96 percent—legally speaking, fit only for dumping on roads (the world's chief use of salt is to prevent freezing).

Necton's salt, incredibly, falls into the third class. Hand-harvested, sun-dried sea salt isn't "pure." It contains a far greater variety of minerals than does plain table salt. Some of these, such as magnesium, iron, and calcium, are particularly good for health and occur in relatively high concentrations in unpurified sea salt.

The best Necton could do the first year was to sell its hand-harvested salt at the same price as the mechanically harvested crop from its one large salt pan, even though the former required ten times as much labor. All the salt would go to a processing plant to be "purified."

Help came from the only people selling fleur de sel: the French. Starting in the 1970s Guérande, a cooperative on the Brittany coast, had similarly revived old techniques, making Sel de Guérande famous around the world in a very short time—and getting a very high price for it, as my first experience of buying its salt at home showed. Necton's salt astonished the French, who on seeing it cried, "Regards, c'est blanc!" On the Brittany coast rain stirs up clay from the bottom and clouds the water in the salt pans. The elegant-sounding sel gris of Brittany is sea salt that gets its gray color from the clay that is raked up along with the salt crystals—mud, to put it bluntly. The sun of the Algarve is far steadier and hotter, and much less rain falls there. Necton decided from the first summer to leave the bottom layer of the pans untouched; both its traditional sea salt and its flor de sal are of an unparalleled whiteness.

The Guérande cooperative generously shared experience and technical advice with Necton, and offered to buy its salt for resale. Another idea came from a neighboring nature reserve in the Algarve, where a technician brought together several marenotos who were still hand-harvesting salt into a traditional-salt-producers' association, and helped them to obtain what is probably the world's only available certification for unrefined, organic sea salt. Given by a French group called Nature et Progres, the certificate guarantees that the salt has been found free of scores of possible contaminants.

But it hasn't changed Portuguese law. The group of traditional-salt producers is currently petitioning Lisbon to exclude two categories from the restrictions of the infamous third class: traditional sea salt and flor de sal. Until it succeeds, it is selling most of its traditional sea salt to the Guérande cooperative, which repackages it (leading people to think, of course, that it is French salt). Necton is handsomely packaging the flor de sal, though, and selling it abroad and to a few Portuguese gourmet shops willing to flout the law. Zingerman's, in Ann Arbor (www.zingermans.com), has just received its first shipment of Necton's flor de sal and plans to sell it for a good deal less than the French variety.

"We don't want to be the salt kings," Navalho says. Necton just wants to preserve an endangered tradition and the endangered environment that makes it possible. Then it wants to get back to its real work—producing algae.

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