Natural Foods Merchandiser

Sea Salts Flavor Culinary Sales

The history, economies and religions of the world are heavily seasoned with salt. But not just any salt—sea salt. On April 6, 1930, when Mohandas Gandhi reached down to pick up a handful of sea salt from the beaches of Dandi, India, an entire country held its breath. The simple gesture—Gandhi's hands cupped around the crystals, an illegal act according to the British salt monopoly—inspired oppressed Indians to rise up against British domination.

The refined iodized salt sold in supermarkets today would never have held enough value to change history. But today culinary experts and home cooks are reaching for their saltcellars with some of the reverence in which pure, unadulterated sea salt once was held.

Open an oyster and you can smell and taste the sea—it's the same for sea salt. "Many of us were brought up on white bread and refined iodized salt," says Dan Witherspoon, a chef and cooking instructor based in Denver. He re-educates his students' taste buds with blind salt tastings. Once they touch the sea salt to their tongues, they never use anything else, he says.

Because it is either collected from dried seabeds buried deep in the ground or harvested from the ocean, all food-grade salt is sea salt, explains Ari Weinzweig, founding partner of Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich. Although all salt is simply a little Na combined with a little Cl to make sodium chloride, the flavor and texture of sea salts vary depending on how and where the salts are harvested. Grey salts from Brittany, France, get their flavor from clay. Indian black salts have a pungent sulfur taste from iron oxide; and salts from hot locales, like the island of Sicily, have a clean, sweet flavor imparted by the Mediterranean sun.

"It's about going back to the old ways of collecting salt," Weinzweig says. In doing so, many salt makers are not only making a good product, they are returning the wetlands to a healthy ecosystem, a practice not seen in many commercial salt works. Clean environmental conditions are vital for pure sea salt production. Ocean water must be pollutant-free. And the air and water temperature must be ideal for the salt to collect and evaporate in the salt beds. In his bakery, deli and catering business, Weinzweig uses a Portuguese flor de sal harvested by Necton. A marine biologist who wanted to bring back traditional salt harvesting methods and re-create safe wildlife habitats for the Iberian coastal regions started the company.

Another salt that's caught the attention of environmentally conscious cooks—and Britain's Queen Elizabeth—is Halen Mon salt, harvested on the Welsh island of Anglesey. It is said the royal family and guests at Buckingham Palace use the salt on everything from soft-boiled eggs to more regal meals. Because it is harvested from a pristine location using clean techniques, the salt recently received organic certification from the U.K. Soil Association. Halen Mon President David Lea-Wilson points out that the island shore where the salt is collected is buffered with mussel beds, which create a natural filtering system that produces a unique taste.

The system of dragging and gathering salt with wooden rakes has been around since 8,000 B.C., according to Salt: A World History (Walker & Co., 2002), Mark Kurlansky's definitive book on salt. The Chinese used wooden rakes to carefully coax the salt from the surface of Lake Yuncheng in the province of Shanxi. Fleur de sel, the rarest of sea salts, still is collected this way in the Guérande marshes a few miles west of St.-Nazaire in northwest France. The salt appears from June to September, but only if the exact environmental conditions exist—hence its high retail price, around $2 an ounce.

The Salt & Grain Society in Asheville, N.C., sells a similar small-grained white salt called Flower of the Ocean—the "caviar of salt," says CEO Selina Delangre. The delicate flat crystals can be crushed in your fingers. Delangre recommends these salts be used, like olives, to finish dishes, such as fruit salads, fresh vegetables and salads. They should not be buried in a recipe where they may go unnoticed, Weinzweig says.

Sea salt blends are a good way to introduce sea salt to consumers. Sea salts and salt blends are popular with home cooks who want to replicate what they find in restaurants, Delangre says. Look for sea salts mixed with cracked seeds, spices, and Asian and Italian herbs. Colorado Spice Inc. in Boulder, Colo., for example, sells salt and spice blends that include coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and chilies to pick up the flavors of Latin America, India, Asia and the Middle East.

Wholesale sea salt prices vary from a few dollars per pound to upwards of $12. But despite the high price, tastings can turn even skeptics into avid sea salt fans. Once customers taste it, and understand that a $15 salt will last for six months, they are ready to make the small investment in flavor, Weinzweig says.

Kimberly Lord Stewart is a freelance writer and media consultant based in Longmont, Colo. She is currently working on her first cookbook.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 48, 50

Seaside Treasures

NFM scoured the world's beaches to find some interesting sea salts, but the most amazing find was in America. Fran's Grey Salt Caramels takes America's fascination with Brittany sea salt and combines it with caramel and a layer of dark chocolate and tops it off with a few more sprinkles of sea salt. Wow! The chocolates are available for drop ship and wholesale from the Seattle-based company.

Here is a list of the other sea salts uncovered from salty entrepreneurs worldwide:

  • Baja Sea Salt is harvested by SiSalt and hand ground on stone mills. The unpolluted waters make a crystal white salt.

  • Bamboo Salt is made by roasting sea salt in bamboo cylinders. Look for it from Korean food distributors.

  • Black Salt, a tan-colored salt, is commonly sold in Indian markets. The salt has a high sulfur content.

  • English Sea Salt is made by one traditional salt maker, Maldon Sea Salt, located on the southern coast. The crystals resemble pyramids and the salt is a favorite among London's chefs.

  • Fleur De Sel is considered the finest sea salt because of its delicate flavor and flat crystal flakes. Similar salts are sold as Flower of the Ocean from the Grain & Salt Society and Flor De Sal from Portugal.

  • Grey Sea Salt, or Sel Marin, tinted gray from clay beds, is usually harvested in northwest France. Look for it in fine or course ground.

  • Grey Salt with algae combines salt, collected from the southwest corner of France, with green algae.

  • Hawaiian Sea Salt, or alaea salt, gets its pinkish-brown color and flavor from Hawaiian clay, rich in iron oxide.

  • New Zealand Sea Salt is collected from sunny shores by our Down Under friends.

  • Sicilian Sea Salt is collected on the western coast of the island and dried under the hot Mediterranean sun.

  • Utah Sea Salt comes from ancient dried seabeds in the southern portion of the state, sold by Redmond Minerals Inc.

  • Welsh Sea Salt, sold as Halen Mon, from the Isle of Anglesey, is certified organic by the U.K. Soil Association.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 50

Shaking the Sodium and Blood Pressure Myth

While medical experts agree that sodium affects blood pressure, new research shows the problem may be related as much to mineral deficiencies. Macrobiotic experts have long believed this to be true. "We all carry the ocean around with us in our blood," says David Jenkins, macrobiotic counselor and president of SiSalt, in Prescott, Ariz., "and it's the minerals and the sodium that balance the alkaline in our blood."

Unlike common table salt, which is almost pure sodium chloride, sea salts contain as many as 50 trace minerals such as calcium, potassium, sulfur, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, copper, zinc and iodine. Although the mineral content in sea salt is small, medical research is showing that larger quantities of the minerals potassium and magnesium may indeed counteract the ill effects of too much sodium. Recent peer-reviewed research shows that if adequate levels of these two minerals are in a person's diet, blood pressure levels decline significantly. This research raises the question of whether restricting sodium intake alone to one teaspoon a day or less can really help lower blood pressure.

Studies showing the interrelatedness of these three minerals has prompted development of low-sodium sea salts that contain higher levels of potassium and magnesium. One such salt, currently only available in the United Kingdom, is Solo Sea Salt, produced off the coast of Iceland. Using a patented process that retains the natural properties and trace minerals of the sea salt, sodium levels are reduced by 60 percent and potassium and magnesium levels are increased to medically significant levels, according to the company. Salt industry experts are looking into introducing similar products in the United States.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 50

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