Salt is a fascinating subject. No, really, it is. Salt or rather, who has control of it, has caused rebellions, wars, revolutions even – most notably in France where a tenfold rise in the ‘gabelle’ or salt tax rubbed, well, salt in the wounds of the French peasants. Or not, seeing as they couldn’t afford it. Ghandi famously led a 100, 000 person protest against the British salt tax with the protesters making their own salt from the sea, an act of open defiance which played a huge part in the country’s eventual liberation. Countless times in history salt has played a pivotal role in major historical events such as these.
Its importance to human survival has also elevated its status across the world from mere nutritional necessity to a symbolic substance used in rituals, both religious and cultural. The white stuff Sumo wrestlers throw into the ring to ward off evil spirits before each bout? Salt. Covenants in the Old and New Testament were sealed with salt. When the Dalai Lama died in 1933 he was buried seated on a bed of salt. The Pueblo American Indians worship the ‘Salt Mother’. Salt is used in various purifying rituals in Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism. And on and on, examples of the ceremonial and sacramental use of salt throughout the world are endless.
Salt has always had an economical role and continues to do so. Many trades and industries rely on salt for their survival. This is usually in the arena of manufacturing and mass production of goods but some salt mines have themselves become major tourist attractions such as those in Austria and Bolivia which also has a hotel built from salt.
Before the invention of canning around two hundred years ago, salting things was the most effective way we had of preserving food. And whilst we are now no longer completely reliant on it as a preserving agent salt remains the cornerstone of all cooking with the possible exception of followers of the Rastafarian Ital food movement. Any dish can be ruined by the lack of it or excess of it and we’re becoming increasingly aware of the effect of salt on our health. As many problems can be caused by salt deficiency as can by too much salt. There are, it is claimed, certain health benefits to using salt which has not been stripped of all its natural minerals, which make sense to me. No human life can survive without salt as we need it to metabolise the nutrients from our food. It therefore follows that processed salt is likely to have the same effect on the body as processed foods in my (admittedly non-scientific) opinion.
I started seriously thinking about the type of salt I use in my cooking when I decided to salt a flitch of pork to make my own bacon. Up until that point I’d always used Maldon sea salt but the quantity I was going to need for my bacon venture meant I had to look elsewhere for a high quality salt at a cheaper price. My subsequent research led me – with many twists and turns along the way – to Sel Gris which has now replaced Maldon sea salt in my house for all but presentation purposes, i.e. salt that goes on the table.
There are two sources from which we obtain salt, the sea and rocks. Rock salt is extracted by mining and, like sea salt, can either be sold in its pure form if the quality allows or can be further refined with varying levels of compounds being added or taken away. The primary aim of refining salt for human consumption is aesthetic. In other words, to whiten it and make it flow freely (both of which I can live without for 99% of my usage). Sea salt is obtained from sea water and again, either sold pure or refined in different ways depending on its intended market.
Sel Gris or literally ‘grey sea salt’ is an unrefined salt, hand-harvested from the sea around Guerande in Brittany. It is made by simply drying out sea water. Because it is unrefined in any way it is very slightly moist as it contains no scary sounding anti-caking agents such as sodium silicoaluminate. (This is why the Maldon Sea Salt still goes on my table – the moistness of Sel Gris makes it difficult to sprinkle but I rarely put salt on the table anyway so a box now lasts me a very long time!). It also differs in taste; it is more intense and somehow much more savoury and layered than refined table salt. My first taste of Sel Gris was a revelation, the first dishes I made with it a new chapter in my cooking. I could never go back. I’m in good company, too. It is the choice of professional chefs across France and indeed the rest of the world. In terms of price, it’s much cheaper than buying good salt in the supermarket once you’ve found somewhere to buy it. I pick mine up from Planet Organic just off the Tottenham Court Road where a one kilo bag costs £3 but it can be easily purchased on the internet
If you find it hard to believe that ordinary table salt can taste so very different to good unadulterated salt then it’s an easy thing to test. First pop a few grains of Sel Gris on your tongue and really taste it. Then follow it with the same amount of cheap table salt – you know the brand I mean! – and taste that, too. If your palate is working you’ll feel the latter almost burns by comparison. It is harsh and one dimensional compared to its purer counterpart.
Without wishing to sound too evangelical I’d urge fellow food obsessives to track down some Sel Gris and give it a go. After all, any chef worth their salt uses it.