Salt: one of the most base and essential compounds, dialectical in nature, alchemical by design.
Salt is essential to the human body. Too little will kill you. Too much will kill you. In Western society we rarely have to worry about too little. A fine balance. It can preserve, enhance, enliven, transmogrify, and yet too much can destroy.
Salt is probably the most ubiquitous element we use in cooking, and yet it is the most quietly romantic. Beneath its populism lies its mystique and clandestine charm. It is an ancient element, revered for thousands of years; sought after, fought over, bartered with and haggled over. It is the Helen of Troy of the culinary world; it is at once beauty and destruction.
We are well-versed with modern medicine’s rote that salt is to blame for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, and yet it is the misunderstanding of our relationship with salt that underpins our modern distrust of it. Massive levels of salt are to be found in processed food – from breakfast cereal and white bread to jarred sauces and fast food – and the salt we find there is indeed detrimental. That cheap salt that pads out processed food, that is lathered on chipper chips and resides in the silvery prisons of cafe salt shakers is nothing more than the by-product of the chemical industry – it is that which is left over after all the minerals have been expunged for other commercial purposes (such as the manufacture of vitamin supplements). It is highly processed, packed with anti-caking agents and bleached. It is the ravaged remains found at the sweaty conclave where the chemical and food industries meet.
By contrast, unrefined salt is one of the most exciting and beautiful ingredients you can work with, and its intensity of flavour means that far less is required. Rock salt (halite) is found where ancient seas or lakes dried up leaving sedimentary minerals that can be mined or extracted through ‘in situ leaching’. Its colour is affected by the impurities it encounters over the centuries, turning shades of pinks or Heisenberg blues, a defiant wink to its centuries of static travel, its sleep of ages.
Sea salt (solar salt) is harvested through stages of evaporation and filtration, its flavour and mineral profile as distinctly formed and place-specific as any wine – its watery ‘terroir’ as profoundly shaping. The grade of the water, the climate and tides, the mineral and impurity levels all affect the complex flavour profile of salt.
Cornish Sea Salt is snow white with an excellent crunch and an intense saltiness that hits then disappears. It is like kissing the tears off the eyelashes of an unrequited love – striking and unforgettable, yet fleeting.
Irish Atlantic Sea Salt is like a Christmas morning plunge is the Forty Foot, its power is in those moments just after the initial impact, its saltiness is intense and lingering, refreshing and unarguably Irish.
Maldon Sea Salt is steeped in history, part of a salt industry that has been found on the east coast of Essex for over two thousand years. It has less immediate impact than Cornish, less lingering saltiness than Atlantic and yet is a solid and elegantly balanced salt.
Fleur de Sel is gravelly and almost imperceptibly moist. It is like a walk on the sand as the tide comes in; that exact point where the sea meets the land and creates a briney love child that lends itself to the amelioration of sweet dishes.
In savoury cooking, salt is added throughout to bring out all the flavour of the food and ward off blandness. In sweet cooking, salt can further tease out the sweetness. As one of the five tastes – saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness and umami – it is interesting to realize that salt fills its category all by itself. Salt can not be replicated or synthetically reproduced. It stands tall and proud, brave in its merits, clear in its goals. Salt is magical and alchemical. It is the creation of something brilliant from something base. It confers longevity of life on food and wards away decay. And it transforms…to which my sea salt caramel brownie is testament.
Text, photos & styling by Kate Packwood