Friday, May 11, 2007

Salt of the earth

It's easy to take salt for granted. That is, until you've discovered coarse gray sea salt and fleur de sel from France's Atlantic coast. I've known for years that the first gets its color from clay and the second floats to the surface of the water, but had never given much thought to how they were actually harvested. All that has changed now that I'm on the Ile de Ré, one of three islands or peninsulas in France that produce the country's finest sea salt. After getting my fill of the gloriously empty sandy beaches yesterday, I went on a little field trip to visit the island's salt marshes, joining some intrepid seniors from the Muscadet region who had come in vintage convertibles and a couple of other curious tourists.
At first there doesn't appear to be much to see, just stretches of orderly square puddles bordered by paths. But our guide Christelle did a great job of explaining the fascinating process of harvesting salt. The technique dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and, like so many medieval inventions, is ingenious. Salt producers, who are called paludiers north of the Loire river and sauniers (after the medieval word for salt) in the south, have used the same tools for hundreds of years, though some of the hoes and rakes are now made of fiberglass rather than wood to make them easier to handle.
Because the salt marshes are below sea level, the seawater comes through a dyke into a large pool. From there, the sauniers (we are south of the Loire) control its flow through a system of canals and dams using simple slats of wood. The water moves through the flats like a maze, with each series of square basins lower and shallower than the last. Harvesting can only take place in the summer, when the sun and wind evaporate the water over a period of ten days to two weeks. By the time the salt is ready to harvest there is very little water left, and the sauniers use rakes and hoes on long poles to scrape it into piles and pick it up. In the winter, their job is to keep the natural clay basins clean so that the unrefined salt will be free of impurities. The saunier's wife is traditionally in charge of gently raking off the fleur de sel, the pure white salt that rises to the top of the water and is prized for its light crunch and delicate taste.
About 100 sauniers on the Ile de Ré produce an average of 2,500 tons of salt per season. Christelle explained that in the past farmers produced salt in addition to their vegetable crops, while now it's a profession in itself. To allow the salt producers to make a living even in rainy years when the harvest is smaller, the cooperative keeps the prices stable (ie high). Many of the young sauniers learn their profession on the Guérande peninsula in Brittany, which is the Atlantic's main salt-producing area (the island of Noirmoutier, which is also famed for its potatoes, is the third).
I had often wondered why the Atlantic fleur de sel tastes better than fleur de sel de Camargue, which is produced near Marseille, and Christelle finally cleared up the mystery. She told me that the hot and dry Mediterranean climate causes the water to evaporate faster, resulting in a bitter-tasting salt that needs to be refined before it can be eaten. The Atlantic coast, it seems, has the right combination of sun, wind and rain.
Before leaving I naturally had to stop into the salt shop, where I bought a big bag of fleur de sel and a jar of coarse gray salt flavored with thyme, three peppercorns and three kinds of seaweed. I don't normally go in for flavored salts but, really, who could resist that combination? Later I saw the same salts at a slightly lower price in the supermarket, which gave me pause. But never mind - the fleur de sel will have a prized place on my table for sprinkling at the last minute onto cooked foods and salads, while the seaweed in the coarse salt will make it a natural match for fish or new potatoes. And next time I throw some coarse gray salt into a stew or pack it around a fish to create an airtight crust for roasting, I'll think about the dedicated sauniers and their medieval tools.
Ecomusée de Marais Salant
near the town of Loix on the Ile de Ré

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