Artisanal Salt for a Whiter, More Chesire-like Smile

Just as the tattooing craze can be interpreted as a yearning to compensate for our human imperfections in reaction to mass media’s images of human perfection, so too is the organic food craze symptomatic of a yearning to compensate for our failure to live closer to nature. The only difference is that no amount of pigment, surgery, or exercise will make us as perfect (or its metaphysical counterpart, “individual”) as the girl or boy in the magazine. On the other hand, improving our relationship with food is a very effective way to achieve a closer connection to ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

And so, driven more by psychological motives than intellectual ones, organic food sales have risen 20% year over year since 1990. (Organic salt is among them, though the trend began much more recently, and detailed research on the subject is not available.) During this period, sales of conventional foods have increased 2% to 4% per year.

Great! The Holy Light of pesticide free agriculture has entered our lives, shown us the way, and the now world is on the path to a better place.

But not really.

More than two decades after the organic movement first took root, the term organic seems hackneyed and is failing to satisfy our deeper desires. Eating organic has become politicized, status-ized, fetishized, and sanitized. We often purchase organic food now simply because we are liberals, or because we tell ourselves we are not cheap (organic foods cost anywhere from 40% to 400% more than non-organic), or because organic foods are now sold via tidier, cuter merchandizing tactics — and we do all this despite the fact that we often don’t even know precisely what organic signifies.

To make matters, worse much of the time the taste of organic tomatoes is only marginally better, if at all, than sprayed tomatoes. Organic bread is made in massive automated factories, not warm yeasty kitchens. Organic meat can still come from fetid stockyards, after which it is handled by uninspired butchers. In fact, there is little indication that we are eating better or feeling more connected as a nation or a species, and we are certainly not spending less on palliatives such as drugs or diets.

Conclusion: the organic movement has failed to assuage our yearning to plunge our fingers into the chocolate-dense loam of a radish field. As individuals and as a society, we are seeking anew some way to enfold ourselves in the furry fertile flesh of earthly life.

Who or what can bring us closer to our unrequited hankering for “the way things should be?”

To the best of my knowledge, the answer arrived first inFrance, which is not surprising, as my knowledge is limited almost exclusively toFrance.

Back in the 90s, French bakers were getting upset at the inroads made by supermarkets into the baguette market. The result of this upset was typically French: legislation. The government essentially decreed that there were two kinds of baguette: the “baguette,” and the more austere “baguette de tradition,” which also applies to the baguette’s hefty brother, the flûte, and lean sister, the ficelle. Unlike the baguette, which the great American Bread Historian Stephen Kaplan described as a “tasteless, odorless monstrosity,” and which a personal friend more recently described as “assy,” the baguette de tradition is a pungent, crispy-light, tactfully chewy confabulation. Try my favorite truck stop special: ham and butter sprinkled with Fleur de Sel from Ile de Re on a baguette de tradition, and learn first-hand the Chesire cat’s craft, smiling and smiling as you chew, until, at last, all as vanished but your grin.

Anyway, the baguette de tradition is baked by what is called a “Boulangerie Artisanale,” or Artisan Bakery, or Craft Bakery. The point is, people bake the bread, not machines. More to the point, the people who do the baking are bakers, not unskilled laborers and technicians. In the artisan’s baguette de tradition you can taste pride, passion, and, yes, tradition.

The artisan is the connection between us and the earth.

Salt that was invented, practiced, perfected, produced, packaged, and purveyed by people who have an inherent respect and love for their way of life is a magical thing. The crystals are formed by nature, but fussed over and protected by a person who has either been trained extensively or has grown up fussing over and protecting salt crystals. You feel this obsession when you see, smell, touch, and taste the salt, and you know this in your heart when you pay a little more money than you would for bulldozer-and-refinery produced sea salt or dynomite-and-dumptruck produced mined salt.

Unlike with organic, where you begrudgingly pay good money to have something bad not added to your food, with artisan, you pay for the essential connection between man and earth. (You go one step further when you purchase the salt from small companies that have personal relationships with the salt-makers and importers, but that is another matter.)

Salt is perhaps the most important ingredient in the development of our culture. Salt-preserved foods permitted commerce that fed geographically dispersed communities into burgeoning cities, city-states, and nations. It is only appropriate that we turn to  artisanal salt to connect us again to our history and our natural origins.

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