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.