Former currency (in fact, the root of the word "salary"), invaluable preservative and the source of wars and conflict, salt's role in society dates back to ancient times. Mark Kurlansky, the author of "Salt: A World History"â€”the definitive book detailing the way salt has influenced civilizationâ€”explains that "before the age of petroleum, geology was largely dedicated to understanding and locating salt" and that the search for salt ultimately led to oil. A detail that perhaps had something to do with the book famously landing on George W. Bush's 2005 summer reading list.
The recently-released children's book "The Story of Salt" explores all aspects of salt: its harvesting, history and social importance. Beautifully illustrated by S.D. Schindler, "The Story of Salt" also teaches ketchup-making and details Ghandi's historic Salt March.
Perpetuating (in their small way) the rich history of salt, New York restaurant Per Se serves 30 million year-old "Jurassic" salt from Montana, and these days Fleur De Sel (named for its flower-shaped crystals) rolls off the tongues of home cooks as easily as Morton's. For CH's survey of the ever-popular mineral, we looked for the best and most unusual—from the suspicious-sounding Himalayan pink to the inventively vanilla-flavored.
Fleur De Sel
The undisputed salt of choice for chefs, connoisseurs and food snobs the world over, this French salt from the marshes of Guerande in Brittany is hand-harvested by "paludiers" (salt harvester craftsmen), who sweep the top of the evaporating sea water only on perfect rain-free days in July and August when the sea is calm. We were particularly impressed by Artisan's Fleur De Sel ($16), which had a flavor arc as smooth and complex as a fine Bordeaux. Even more colorful and nuanced was Le Tresor Fleur De Sel ($11), which is one of the only salts that has a government-regulated "appelation controlÃ©." 80 pounds of regular sel gris (grey salt) yields only one pound of these precious flakes we recommend it is as the finishing pinch for your favorite entrÃ©e, desert—or even better, serve it like the French do, on top of a buttered radish.
Far better than Mrs. Dash, we came across several unique salts that, though they lean more toward an herbed rub than a pure salt, will add unconventional flavor to your next meal. Naturally smoked over Red Alderwood, Salish ($16), from Washington state gives the perfect accent to grilled meats or fish. Coastal Goods' Autumnberry salt ($6) is flavored with dried cranberries from Cape Cod and is a perfect seasoning for the holiday turkey or duck. Or for a fresh accent to pork and lamb, try their Lavender Salt ($6), which is infused with lavender oil and blossoms. Developed in collaboration with Kiwi chef Martin Bosley to cure Salmon, Equagold's Vanilla-flavored salt is made with vanilla from Papua New Guinea, comes in a convenient upside-down-grinder and also pairs well other seafood, pork, poultry and game. Contact Equagold to order.
While dabbling in the realm of more ethereal salts we also fell in love with a couple of exotic pink varieties. The first was a delicate, apricot-colored salt from Australia called Murray River ($16), produced by the Artisan Salt Company. The soft flakes melt evenly and quickly and are perfect for vegetables, fish and even chocolate. A rose-colored salt called Himalania ($13) is harvested from a marine fossil formed during the Mesozoic era in the foothills of the Himalayas. With their unique mineral bouquet these robust crystals would be well-served on top of your favorite ice cream or soufflé. Available from Sur La Table.
Earthy and coarse, Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt ($15) gets its crimson red crystals from red clay and is one of the more well-balanced, rich and mild salts we tasted. It would be great as a rub for fish or meat and also as a ground finishing touch on cruditÃ©s or on the rim of a margarita glass.
This striking black clay salt from Cyprus ($31) has a similar flavor structure to the Hawaiian red clay salt and is the perfect yin to balance out the yang of any post-modern presentation—try it on the rim surrounding a pomegranate margarita.
Unprocessed salt has chemical properties that will harm the metal gears in most pepper grinders, but a number of specially-designed mills will refine chunky salt to your liking. Long before they made cars Peugeot created the original pepper mill in 1842 and currently offers various models of high quality salt mills featuring a corrosion-resistant stainless steel grinding mechanism. Designed to work well with higher humidity salt, the innovative Peugeot Wet Salt Mill ($42). Perfect for those who cook on the fly, the Chef'n Salt Ball-Grinder ($15) has soft handles that enable one-handed grinding, five adjustments—from coarse to a fine grind—and who can resist that bunny face? The Kuhn Rikon vase grinder ($40) is designed with a ceramic grinding device positioned on top of the grinder so it won't leave dust on your counter or table. Available in seven colors, it also works well with a variety of spices, including rosemary, flax seeds, sesame seeds, chilies and even coffee.
For those who want to bring artisanal salt wherever they dine, a pocket size salt box is the ultimate gastronomic accessory. The Round Cherrywood Salt Box ($90) from Napa Style slides open with one hand and comes with one pound of their delicious Gray Salt (which CH enjoyed for its balanced and subtle ocean-y appeal).
A CH team effort by Ami, Edwin, Evan and Leti.
Added: October 2006