New York Times on How Caramel Developed a Taste for Salt

Kim Severson at The New York Times has written a piece on salted caramels, briefly tracing the path of what many of us recognized years ago as inevitable; America has become obsessed.  The article does an absolutely great job of talking about salted caramels as a sort of cultural phenomena.  Severson doesn’t taSalted Caramel Photograph taken by Amanda Kosterlk much at all about the salted caramels themselves, perhaps worrying how idling way the day chewing salted caramels will cause her mind to drift, losing sight of deadlines and worldly obligations, or worse, overwhelming the her–salty warm fingers of rapture bearing her body aloft, leaving her journalist’s objectivity on the jagged black rocks below.  In the blogosphere we have no such worries, and can chew a fleur de sel caramel, mull over its virtues, and make earth-shattering assertions in our own sweet time.  The reason for the success of salted caramels can only be found by tasting, by giving the salt-spangled caramel its due.

“It has been a challenging year for investors, homeowners and Republican candidates, but 2008 was very lucky for sweet caramel seasoned with fancy salt.  The combination has long enchanted French and American chefs, but this year it became one of those rare flavors that works its way from an elite culinary obsession to the American mass market.”

Severson interviews the Center for Culinary Development, which uses a five-part trend map to analyze how products evolve in the American marketplace.  After starting out as a regional specialty in Brittany, France, then made its way into elite shops in Paris before jumping the ocean and finding itself on menus of America’s fancy food establishments.  Next to come were appearances in high end food magazines and professional gourmet food shows like the Winter and Fall Fancy Food Shows–which you should definitely attend if you ever have the chance, if only to eat mozzarella samples.  Next up were the big trendy chain operation like the Cheesecake Factory and Williams-Sonoma.

Salted Caramel by Sahagun Chocolates in Portland Oregon“When the people who develop drinks for Starbucks told managers and baristas about their new idea, company bloggers balked, said Rachel Antalek, director of espresso. Salt on caramel?

“The skeptics were quickly proved wrong. The chain’s salt-caramel hot chocolate became a popular seasonal winter drink, she said, embraced even in parts of the country where new combinations of flavors don’t always test well.  Then Wal-Mart rolled out the flavor in a box of truffles. Welcome, salted caramel, to Stage 5: complete integration in the American mass market.”

Severson talks about how the perennially urbane Barack Obama is given to flopping around on the ground in convulsive wriggles of ecstasy as he devours salted caramels made by Fran’s Chocolates.  Severson talks to a food trend analyst who believes Health Food is what drives many food trends.  The article speculates, probably accurately, that if Obama were to publically eat quinoa, the world would convert to eating what was only a few years ago eaten almost purely as a gluten free grain alternative.  Lynn Dornblaser, at Mintel, which researches new product entries worldwide, said she was surprised at the rise of creamy salty Salted Caramels.

However, both Dornblasser and Severson overlooked (or lacked the time and space to discuss) some other research from Mintel–which I just happened to have talked to them about some months ago.  The Health Food new product trend includes within it a subset of new products touting “low sodium” formulas.  But towering over the wave of those new “low sodium” product entries is a tsunami of new products made with specialty salts and finishing salts.  New products containing traditionally-made salt are emerging faster than new products claiming they are low in sodium.

Flor de sal de ManzanillaFran’s caramels are not called “salted caramels.”  They are called “Gray Salt Caramels” and “Smoked Salt Caramels.”  Fran’s website says, for example: “Gray salt harvested off the coast of Brittany perfectly complements the dark chocolate and fresh buttery caramel and creates lingering layers of flavor in this award-winning confection.

The Health Food Trend has spawned many lovely mini-trends, including the “eat organic” and “eat local” and “eat artisan” trends.  These are all bound up in the American consumer’s very well-developed interest in knowing the what, where, how, when, and why of their food.

Salted caramels started in Brittany, and were made with the local fleur de sel French sea salt.  The new American obsession with salted caramels is more specifically an obsession with fleur de sel caramels (we carry Sahagun, Depaula, Michael Recchiuti, and Xocolatle de David among others), gray salt caramels (sel gris is the sister salt to fleur de sel, a coarser salt made from the same salt pans) and smoked salt caramels.

Obama may be cool, but salt is the real the kingmaker.

Read the full New York Times Story: How Caramel Developed a Taste for Salt.

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