Most everyone who walks through the door of our shop is totally unaware of the existence of finishing salts, either in name or in concept. A minority do have some idea of what finishing salts are, but have few clear ideas about how to use them. Only a small fraction of this minority has any clear idea of the various types of finishing salts produced around the world. The widespread practice of finishing food with an artisan-made, specialized salt is still in its infancy.
For this reason (despite the fact that we offer over 50 finishing salts, from the ultra-exotic Vietnamese Pearl sea salt and Shinkai Deep Sea salts to the relatively popular grey salts and flake salts), I always steer the conversation first towards Fleur de Sel. It is endlessly exciting to find that even the most passionate foodies are not fully aware of the scope and magnitude of benefits that lurk inside the fine, complex crystals of an authentic Fleur de Sel.
Fleur de Sel may not be the most obscure salt, but it remains the easiest to use, the most versatile, and the most well understood of the top tier finishing salts available today.
Distinguished by fine, glistening crystals in a pale shade of summer clouds, Fleur de Sel reigns supreme in the world of finishing salts, imparting an extraordinary level of complexity to food.
The powers of Fleur de Sel border on the mystical, yet the characteristics that give it these powers are not difficult to understand. However, before delving into the wonders of Fleur de Sel, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about finishing salts in general. As a starting point, whenever I source a salt I look at the water supply. Because finishing salts are unrefined, it is important that the water supply be of a very quality, naturally high in minerals and low in undesirable elements such as pollution. Because information about source seawater can be confusing, or may not even be available to consumers, it is important to purchase a finishing salt from a knowledgeable and reputable source. Fortunately, there are a number of Fleur de Sels harvested from excellent waters.
An eternity could be spent contemplating the charms of Fleur de Sel, though its greatness lies in the perfect combination of four facets. First, are the facets of the crystals themselves. Fleur de Sel’s irregularly sized and unevenly shaped crystals are key to its behavior on food and in the mouth. Smaller crystals dissolve quickly, pouring out a surge of salty intensity, but almost as quickly, the sensation subsides, and then as larger crystals break apart and dissolve they, too, provide a surge of saltiness. The resulting sensation is one of constantly changing rates of acceleration and deceleration as the salt, the food, and you mind race to integrate themselves into something complex yet cohesive, flavorful yet balanced.
The second facet of Fleur de Sel is its moisture content. A good Fleur de Sel from Brittany will have about 10.3% residual moisture. This gives the crystals integrity on moist or steaming foods; because the salt crystals already have moisture in them, they have the power to subtly repel outside moisture, and do not melt as easily as a drier salt. The result is a wonderful, fine crunch that is both satisfying in itself and also contributes to the way Fleur de Sel and food combine as the they are eaten.
The third facet of Fleur de Sel is its mineral make-up. Fleur de Sel is very high in minerals, due to the well-controlled evaporation process of the paludiers (salt rakers) harvesting the salt from the salt pans where the seawater is evaporated. Fleur de Sel is .25% calcium, .37% magnesium, and .09% potassium, and contains varying quantities of iron, zinc, manganese, and literally dozens of other trace minerals. These combine with the sodium chloride that makes up the majority of the salt to achieve an extremely well-rounded, mellow finishing salt.
Fourth, Fleur de Sel is beautiful. It ranges in hue from barn owl grey to oyster white, and captures the full rainbow of colors in its moist, refractive crystals. The visual impact of a fine Fleur de Sel on a table setting should not be underestimated. As I say to my customers: Salt is nature’s way of showing enthusiasm. Fleur de Sel is nature at its most exuberant, packed with the depths and mysteries of the sea, and broods in the mind’s eye with a rich cultural heritage that links back to the stone-age.
Each quality described above have about 10 nuances each that are important, but which would take pages more, and perhaps a few Martinis, to do full justice. So I will leave it at that.
While we continue to bring in fabulously beautiful, delicious, practical, exotic, strange, and confounding salts from around the globe, Fleur de Sel will remain a mainstay finishing salt at The Meadow, our shop on North Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Oregon. No amount of fame can diminish it. Nature abides all, and it is only we humans who must remember to be humble in the face of its strange combination of eloquence and reserve.