To Sel Gris or Not to Sel Gris

Sel gris has become the largest gourmet salt import in the U.S., and its popularity is growing.  Sel gris is a manner of preparation, a geography, and a cultural artifact, not simply a description of salt that is gray. However, these days just about any coarse, moist, grey-colored sea salt is likely to be lassoed, hog tied, and emblazoned with semi-prestigious brand of sel gris. This harms sel gris no more and no less than it would to copy a painting and call it the original; if you don’t notice the difference, or don’t care, it does not matter.

Sel gris has the enviable insouciance inherent to the true warrior, a gentleness that comes from unbridled power and, at least to the outsider, a kind of moral turpitude.  Over 15% of the material in sel gris de Guérande are trace minerals—possibly the highest of any salt anywhere. 100 grams of sel gris contains about 100 minerals, including 34g of sodium, 287mg calcium, 109mg potassium, 34mg magnesium, 11mg iron, 1mg manganese, and 0.35mg zinc, plus a host of trace minerals like from antimony, copper, germanium, and gold to iodine, to palladium, yttrium, and zirconium. The earth contains 92 natural minerals. Our body arguably needs all of them. Sell gris delivers. The affect of this high mineral on the palate can best be understood by looking deep into the past.

How the Celtic Galls, who originated around 3,000 BCE on the isthmus of between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean (where today we have Turkey) eventually came to settle in France is a long, extremely fascinating story no doubt, but the only salient detail to keep in mind was that they did not do so through indolence and lack of appetite. While historians may squabble over details of the centuries of pillaging, feasting, interbreeding, and practicing of Druidism that got them where they are today, the collective love for turmoil that propelled them for centuries not in debate.

Yet the Galls’ thirst for blood, conquest, and riches was also symptomatic of a deeper yearning. These warring like tides of jerky-eating nomads were by nature not entirely enthralled with either being nomadic or smoking jerky. Tribes within the Gallic population continually tried to settle down, only to be chopped up (possibly for jerking) or carried off (invariably for interbreeding) by their more hot-blooded kin. For centuries this went on, the calmer Galls, like kernels of popcorn popped up into the air, would back shake down through the popcorn until they hit the hot plate again, only to be popped up again, over and over, leaving fewer and fewer unpopped kernels, until one quite Tuesday all the Galls had popping themselves out. Rome had fallen. A continent smoldered, cooled, and eventually took to making canapés and celery rood remoulade.

Having finally broken their swords, snuggled in, exchanged foot rubs, the Galls wasted no time either developing their own some of the world’s most evolved, revered, and ostentatious culinary arts. Salt, being important too health, preserving food, trade, and dining well, was not overlooked, and early on enjoyed great celebrity.

One of the earliest traditions is the method of harvesting salt from the swift, pure ocean currents seeking respite in the estuaries off the town of Guérande, Brittany. As the tide comes in, seawater is first allowed to settle in a silt pond before continuing its course to the shallow salt-fields dug in the native clay. After the combined effect of sun and wind evaporates the seawater to a dense brine, it is then flowed into saltpans to crystallize. As in the days of the earliest Celtic settlers, wood rakes are still used today to recover the salt from the bottom of the pan. (Sel Gris’ wealthy uncle, Fleur de Sel, forms on warm, windy afternoons as a pale crust at the surface of these pans.) The French government, which smiles on all things traditional, has even granted all sel gris de Guérande (and Noirmoutier and Ré) that I know of its Nature et Progrès certificate, which is the equivalent of organic.

Nothing less that this combination of swift sea, settling, natural clay, sun, wind, and Gallic raking from a bronzed and muscled paludier (salt raker) descended from nomadic warriors is responsible for the abundant graces of an authentic sel gris de Guérande.

Be Sociable, Share!

Trackback URI | Subscribe to the comments through RSS Feed

Leave a Reply