12 March 2006

IN PRAISE OF: coarse salts

Salt, you may say, is salt. Except for that stuff that we sprinkle all over our sidewalks and driveways, salt is just salt, right?

Of course not.

Iodized table salt (or "free running") is your standard run of the mill salt. But add to the salt repertoire kosher salt, sea salts, pickling salt, and the food snob's favourite, fleur de sel.

Can you get by on table salt? Sure you can.

But if you happen to pick up a package of sea salt - that coarse, chunky salt - you can do much more. Let's face it, like fat, salt makes things taste better. Not only does the availability of a few varieties of salt give you more options, but it lets you tweak your cooking in whole new ways - subtle as they may be.

Coarse salts, like Kosher salt, sea salts, and so forth, are gaining popularity. Basically, they're fun and easy to fling around. Reference any television chef who salts with a flourish. If a recipe requires the salt to completely dissolve, table salts are best. But any other recipe or application can be a good place to start using coarse salts. Just beware that most coarse salts are saltier than table salt - so use them lightly.

When I was in high school, I got to take a brief school exchange trip to the south of France, to a tiny town called Nimes. Now despite the fact that Nimes' proudest claim to fame is that it is the original home of denim (de Nimes), we found a lot more to do than touring a textile factory (which we did not do). One of those things was to ride the horses of Camargue, at Saintes Maries de la Mer, a marshy Mediterranean coastal area featuring real pink flamingos and piles of salt. Yup, salt. Big mounds of sea salt, sitting out in the open, waiting to come to your kitchen cupboards.

I don't remember much about that horse ride except for the flamingos and the salt. And now every time I use sea salt, that's what I picture. [Sorry if you wanted more from that little trip down memory lane.]

There are about as many varieties of sea salt as there are seas. Go figure. Regional differences may be subtle or drastic, as can be the differences in texture and colour. I'm still using standard run of the mill sea salt, but there's a strong pull to the gray (very unrefined) varieties I've started seeing in the shops...

Fleur de sel is the foodie's special treat, or the food snob's folly. An expensive product (if it's sold on the cheap, it's probably a fake), it's sea salt that is literally scraped off the ocean cliffs in the Brittany region of France. As a result, fleur de sel offers a whole lot of flavour - flavours that you may or may not catch on your first taste. Don't use this stuff for just anything - you'll want to put it into dishes where the flavours will come through, at the finishing stage. Try it on salads, or on delicate vegetable dishes. Put a tiny dish on the table for your guests to use, rather than table salt. Otherwise, save your money and use a "regular" sea salt.

There's a place around Ottawa that does flavoured sea salts, and I've gotten hooked on their smoked salt. They literally smoke sea salt with real wood smoke (the guy explained more, but I've since forgotten). I bought a small tin of the stuff last Fall at the Carp Farmers' Market, and have since seen it around Ottawa in a few food shops. Delicious, with a heady smoked flavour and smell that boosts barbequed meats, roast vegetables, and mashed potatoes. This same company (among many others) offers herbed and spiced salts galore. I'm sticking with the smoked stuff, but have at it.

This stuff is for show. It's literally flakes of salt, produced from a special evaporation process. Again, it would make a nice alternative to table salt for guests. Also great potential for sprinkling on salads and other finished dishes.

Coming up: a use for all this salt.

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