A Fantastic Salt-Time Journey
So you think all salt is created equal? Think again.
By Leslie Bilderback 03/01/2011
I am not usually a proponent of the fancy or the schmancy, especially when it comes to food. I don’t buy kitchen gadgets (my chefs always told me I was weak if I needed more than a chef knife), and I am not interested in that attractively packaged $19 jar of heirloom cedar-plank fifth-generation hickory-smoked gooseberry-lime barbeque salsa. I’m a deadly serious cook, and I reject frivolity.
But years ago I was gifted a jar of sel gris, and I immediately became a salt fanatic. What kinds of salt are there? I’m glad you asked!
Fancy salts come in an amazing array of flavors and colors, and, yes, they all taste different. I generally laugh at the wine people with their excessive descriptors, spouting off about how the bouquet is reminiscent of fruit and grass and dirt and ennui. But salt really does vary, not only in flavor but also in texture, color and its effect on the food.
Salt can be harvested from sea water or rock deposits left from ancient seas. From the ocean, salt water is dried by the sun in shallow pools. Mined salt, also known as rock salt, grows in very hard isometric crystals and is either hacked out in chunks or extracted through evaporation.
Virtually every worthy destination on earth has a salt associated with it. Every marshy, boggy pool of water, every lonely sandy edge of coastline, every desolate wasteland and jagged peak around the world has a salt gift shop somewhere nearby.
You can buy Dead Sea salt, Himalayan salt, Kashmir salt, Danish Viking salt, Icelandic hot springs salt, Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula salt, Japanese nazuna sea salt, Sicilian sea salt, Cyprus sea salt, Bolivian rose salt, Peruvian pink salt, Hawaiian black or red salt, Australian Murray River salt and Jurassic salt (It’s dino-mite!). If I were a motivated entrepreneur I’d harvest California beach boardwalk salt, with subtle undertones of cotton candy, Coppertone and medical marijuana.
You can buy salt with flavors, such as smoked salt. That’s made by evaporating seawater over fancy smoking woods such as alder, cherry, juniper, elm, mesquite, guava or old Chardonnay wine barrels. (I’d like to see Rolling Stone salt, smoked over Keith Richards.) There are salts infused with herbs, flowers, truffles, plums, saffron, vanilla, sugar maple, bamboo juice and Pinot Noir. There’s even moon salt. (It’s harvested at night. It’s not actually from the moon, although… “Hello, NASA?”)
The most ubiquitous fancy salt is fleur de sel, which you can find all over town in jars or sprinkled atop caramels, chocolate bars, ice cream and lattes.
(I learned a valuable thing when I first tried fleur de sel caramels: Just because something is pretentious does not mean it can’t also be really yummy.)
Fleur de sel is hand-harvested sea salt. It too is available from a variety of locations, but the most notable offerings come from the coast of Brittany. Each area produces a distinct salt because the natural vegetation and minerals vary. Salt removed from the top layer of water is pale and delicate (like a flower) in flavor, while gray sea salt (sel gris) has been allowed to sink and mix with the ocean water, giving it a more robust, under-the-sea flavor.
You’d think this array of salt would be a prime target for my snarky ridicule. But on the contrary, like a little girl with her Barbies, I can’t wait to play with each and every one of them.
So it will be no surprise to you that I dragged my family to Salzburg, Austria. (Salz = salt.) Salt has been mined from these Alps for five centuries and was a major part of the local economy. (That is, until Julie Andrews came to town.) Not only can you buy local salt everywhere, but you can also visit the mines, which we did. Despite my assurances that the tour would be just like a salty version of Disneyland, the eyeballs were a-rollin’. But the minute we walked in and saw Salzi, the smiling cube-shaped salt-crystal mascot, we knew we were in for a treat.
The first step in a salt-mine tour is to lock up all your personal belongings and climb into a sporty miner’s jumpsuit. Then we hopped up and straddled long seats aboard a tiny electric train that swept us, surprisingly fast, deep into the mountain. The tunnel was cold and tight, and there were times we had only an inch or two of clearance above our head. It was like Disney’s Indiana Jones ride without the snakes or safety precautions.
Off the train we walked through dark tunnels and listened to recorded tales of ancient salt history and underground salt adventure. The cavernous Salt Cathedral was a huge open space made über-awesome by nifty colored lights. The miners used it for subterranean worship, and later, the Nazis stashed their stolen loot there.
To get to the mountain’s lower levels, we rode the banister slide the way they did in the pre-elevator age. The whole family was stacked in a tight row, straddling a wide banister. (Miners like straddling.) A gate is lifted, gravity does its thing, and suddenly we were 36 meters lower and a little tousled. (When I dreamt of a two-story house as a kid, a salt-mine banister slide was what I really wanted.)
Through mystic salted grottos, we discovered memorials to past salt miners, ancient mining equipment and the occasional mannequin startling us in its vintage salt-mine gear. The many wonders of salt were revealed and all our salt questions answered in the multi-media Salt Laboratory, where “edu-tainment” was the order of the day.
To get the salt out of these mountains, water is pumped in, which dissolves the salt, creating salt water, which is then pumped out and evaporated. Salzi and his friends left one cavern filled with water for salt-loving tourists. We boarded a barge on the briny banks of Mirror Lake and floated under a canopy of salt crystals. Suddenly, the lights went out and the cavern filled with kosmische musik and laser lights. The colors were mesmerizing as they bounced off the crystal ceiling and reflected off the water. Eat your heart out, Laserium!
After the tour there was, of course, a salty gift shop, and you know I stocked up on delicious mountainy salt. Those Bavarians are quite proud of their salty mountains, and rightly so. Their love was poetically illustrated in the salt mine brochure and its heartfelt, if confusing, English translation: “Leading the Salt Mine into the future, without doing without what is well-proven which is precisely what has been achieved with the fantastic Salt-Time Journey!”
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker and chef, a cookbook author and lead pastry instructor at École de Cuisine in Pasadena. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.