An Encomium to Salt

Salt is the prism through which the ingredients, dishes, meals, people, and cultures of the world can be experienced in all their fullness and variety.

This may sound like hyperbole, but sprinkle the parchment fine flakes of Maldon sea salt on home-grown butterleaf lettuce dressed in macerated shallot vinaigrette and you will experience a chlorophyll dynamo of flavor that seems to strum at the very heart of nature. Patter the pink flesh of fresh-caught trout with the stratified lacework flakes of Halen Môn and brace yourself against the sure compulsion to make offerings of hekatombs and burnt flesh to the sea god Poseidon. Let fall dark pyramids of black lava flake salt on medallions of Armagnac-seared pork and plantains and you will feel the turgid rush of Incan discovery. Grind smoked salt on hand-churned ice cream and you will trade your house for an igloo.

Salt is the unifying field that gives human sensibility to earth, wind, and fire: innocent as a child’s tears, erotic as a lover’s sweat, absolute as spilled blood. For millennia, salt was an anchor of civilization. In today’s listless world, ignorance of salt’s essence is symptomatic of all that we have lost in richness and immediacy in life.

Salt has become a substitute for flavor; the idea of things has strangled the thing itself. Being has been supplanted by being in the right place, being in the right place has been supplanted by getting to the right place, and getting to the right place has been supplanted by owning the right car. Salt is an opportunity to bring life back to scale, to experience afresh the feast that nature offers us every day.

Putting processed table salt on any dish is the equivalent of driving a car using only second gear. Even the most expensive finishing salts cost only pennies a serving, and yet catapult everyday food such as eggs, sandwiches and popcorn to new heights. The benefit of marrying the right salt to the right food increases as the quality and complexity of food increases, compounding and fractalizing the nuances, ironies, novelties, and enigmas of the chef.

While the economics, alcohol, and artistry have combined to assure wine’s place in the pantheon of the essentials of fine dining, salt largely has been relegated to a lick in the cow pasture. The 10,000 bottle wine cellar keeps company with a 20 pound bag of mass-manufactured salt. No restaurant has a selmelier, dedicated to assisting diners in choosing the salt that will bring each course to its fullest bloom, in its permanent employ.

That’s a pity, because the interplay of salt and food is complex, and finding the salts that make the most of your food can take some searching. A salt’s mineral content, crystal structure, grain size, and color all combine uniquely on a given dish. A variety of mediums have been used for exploring salt. Thomas Keller the French Laundry serves foie gras with a salt service of five or six finishing salts. (I have never been absolutely clear on whether the salt was at the service of the foie gras, or the other way around.) However, using foie gras as a tasting medium for salt has obvious limits deriving from its fattiness, flavor peculiarities, and of course cost.

Chocolate, bread and butter, and snap peas are all excellent mediums for tasting salt. However, every vegetable, meat, preparation, and presentation affords new possibilities. When you discover a new salt, you bring fresh distinction to your life.

Awareness of gourmet salt is growing rapidly at the fringes of the culinary world. By bringing a curated selection of the world’s hundreds of salts to Portland, Oregon, we at The Meadow hope to further spur its appreciation. To this end, this form an open collaboration with importers, producers, chefs and, in the inimitable words AJ Liebling, feeders.

Nobody is immune to the benefits of sel gris, and chefs who already recognize the value of fleur de sel and flake salts can readily open new vistas of flavor, texture, and beauty simply by exploring new salts.

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