Let me explain.
First, an acquaintance began importing Portuguese Flor de Sal, the “flower of salt” harvested from salt crystals that float on the water’s surface. Snowy white and sparkling, its taste is both delicate and briny. My husband and I used it when we were feeling fancy, pinching it on top of fresh bread dipped in good olive oil.
Soon after, a friend gave me a box of Maldon sea salt, from Britain. This salt is flaked, looking like translucent bits of shale, and its flavor is clean and sweet. I started to stir it into chocolate chip cookie dough, and found the chocolate and salt pinged off each other, pushing up the cookie’s “wah!” factor. I next sprinkled it on a caramel sundae, also to good effect; the salt hit intensifying and by contrast mellowing caramel’s milky sweetness.
Why did these things happen? As best I could figure, what I’d heretofore been using-regular table salt-was a miniscule grain, and thus too easily diffused; it made things “salty,” but that’s it. The sea salt, by contrast, had texture, and hence enough muscle to punch out discrete pockets of flavor.
Hmm. Were other flavor amplifications as easy as adding the right salt? And if so, what kinds of salt?
In order to learn how far I could go, I first looked up were we’d been. A cruise around the web taught me that in ancient Rome, a soldier’s pay was in salt, thus the word “salary”; that in Rabbinic literature, salt was a metaphor for wisdom, and that France’s Medieval salt tax, the onerous “gabelle,” was in part responsible for inciting the French Revolution. I knew from experience that salt-free bread tasted like cardboard, and that eggs and soups were ghastly without salt, they simply need it, as do all living things: no creature on earth can survive without sodium and chlorine, the two main components of salt.
My fetish with this most common of staples must have been part of the cultural flotsam, for in short order my husband came home with a set of Danish modern salt and pepper grinders and announced, “I like a salt you can grind,” and a gourmet shop specializing in “finishing salts” opened a few blocks from our house.
“Welcome,” said the proprietress of The Meadow, pouring small cups of a port-like Banyuls from the Pyrenees, as we faced a panorama of salt, in feathery mounds and quartz-like slabs and one mortar and pestle made entirely of rose-colored salt from Pakistan. There were nearly fifty salts, from Bali and Cypress, Bolivia and Portugal, Peru and New Zealand and Vietnam. There were salts smoked over French oak casks used to age Chardonnay, and salts speckled with Tahitian vanilla bean. There were shards of salt so sharp I could imagine it slicing my tongue to bits, and salt as fluffy as baby powder. There were deep-sea salts and salts from quarries and those derived from volcanic clay; gold salt and silver salt; salt black as pitch and white as cream. Salt that tasted like salt, salt that tasted of smoke, of fruit, of mineral, or metal. Tasting pinch after pinch, reading how the salts were procured and by whom was like hearing a new language, and one that you could learn rather quickly, simply by being curious.
Though in truth, it was not possible to be too curious; my mouth simply couldn’t take more than a dozen salts, no matter how many honey-roasted cocoa beans I ate to cleanse the palate. We wound up buying two- Hiwa Molokai Black Lava, and Alaea Volcanic. The first is black and rocky and intense; the latter, a dusty rose, lightly crunchy, and mild. We’ve used them for poultry and popcorn and to salt the rims of cocktail glasses. I like them both but sense there are others I will like more, and after that, another.
Though I am not yet as evangelical as the owner of the Meadow-who blogs that “a strong relationship with gourmet salt safeguards against the stagnation and turpitude that overtakes us as money, children, and slackening metabolism slowly suck the juice from our bones”-I do see how this first step might lead right down the wormhole. That once we insert the sublime on the everyday, it’s hard to go any other way. For now, I am content to know there’s a little colored salt in the cupboard, and perhaps next week, a Halen Mon Gold from the coast of Wales, because I read it is exceptionally harmonious with sweets, and maybe a Fleur de Sel de l’Ile de R√©, which is said to smell like violets.
Special Bonus Feature: Ms. Swan at Starbucks
Nancy Rommelmann is a columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Bon Appetit and other publications, and a frequent contributor to Portland Food & Drink. She is the author of several books, including Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, and the recently completed memoir, Leaving Los Angeles. Her personal blog can be read here.