Hooray! The New York Times does it again, gives salt a gander. The Times has published a nice little piece on the story of João Navalho, who after failing in a business to produce and market beta-carotene grown in abandoned salt marshes, he took the more obvious path and returned the land to salt production. Enlisting Maximino António Guerreiro, a traditional salt company was (re) born. A good deal of salt from Portugal’s Algarve region is finding its way to the American and European markets, competing as Portuguese flor de sal with the French fleur de sel and other French sea salt.
Among the ten or so Fleur de Sel’s we carry, the French versions are predictably more popular than their Portuguese brethren. Times’ writer Elaine Sciolino points out “…Mr. Navalho confesses that his team learned many of its techniques from Guérande, the Brittany-based cooperative that restored traditional salt-making to France in the 1970s and whose brand dominates the hand-harvested salt business. France produces about 80 percent of Europe’s hand-harvested salt and fleur de sel.”
The quality of any artisanal salt ranges from producer to producer. I have found that João Navalho’s Necton salt company indeed produces a good flor de sal. (We sell a hand-harvested artisanal sea salt from neighboring salt producer as Flor de Sal do Algarve.) The Times story points out the challenges any buyer faces when deliberating artisanal salts: it is not always easy to know when a salt is in fact made by an artisanal: “Nico Boer, the German co-manager of the Marisol salt works in nearby Tavira, said one Portuguese salt producer sold more than a dozen tons of industrial salt to the French several years ago, passing it off as hand-harvested.”
The New York Times story, “From a Portuguese Marsh, Salt, the Traditional Way,” written by Elaine Sciolino, is classic New York Times journalism, packed with great insights into the people and place, but keeping a pole’s distance between the writer and any observations of the heart of the matter: in this case, the culinary and other benefits driving the growing global use of finishing salts.
Word choice matters enormously, and Ms. Sciolino uses language that is intended to make the finishing salt seem like a plaything of the frivolous and decadent: “These days, European designer salt must compete with exotic salts from around the world, including Himalayan pink salt harvested at altitudes over 10,000 feet, a South Korean salt that is roasted in bamboo, and Hawaiian red Alaea, which gets its color from red clay.”
I don’t want to sound harsh, but the term “designer salts” is not used by anyone in the salt industry. It is a term coined by food writers, probably to show they are not suckers, that they see this as a fashion trend equal to Jordash Jeans. The history, culinary associations, and personalities do indeed contribute to our complicated love for this elemental part of our food, but there are other forces at work as well. Since Marie Antoine Carême (1784–1833) we have been simplifying cooking techniques and refining flavors in a quest to capture the full majesty of the foods we eat.
“The history of Portugal and salt is long and romantic. The first known document related to Portuguese salt works dates from the 10th century, when a countess donated salt marshes to a monastery that she founded. A century later, the Algarve region was shipping salt across Europe; in the 15th and 16th centuries, salt helped make Portugal a global power.”
In fact, Roman salt-fish factories can still be found in the Baixo Sado area of Portugal, and the Roman Empire exported a great deal of salt from Portugal maybe in the neighborhood of 1,000 years earlier!
For thousands of years people have been making salt by the side of the sea. The strength of writers like Ms. Sciolino is that they understand our collective need for a deeper connection with our culinary and earthly heritage. (I hope Ms. Sciolino will jump on a jet and visit another country reviving its traditional salt production, like Mexico, next!) Finishing salt is a compass by which every professional chef and home cook can navigate on their odyssey through history. The genius of people like João Navalho is their observation that celebrating simplified and more flavorful ingredients is not a trend, but an enduring characteristic of our evolving society.