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Salt of the Earth: What You Need to Know about Natural Sea Salt

Unprocessed salts from around the world are a treat for your palate—and your well being.
By Sophia V. Schweitzer
May/June 2002

Salts courtesy The Spice House, Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Photos by Joe Coca

“In it, we taste infinitude,” Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote of salt in Elementary Odes (Odas Elementales, 1954). Salt has been called the dust of the ocean and the essence of life. Salt is sacred. Entire civilizations have risen around it. It’s part of wedding ceremonies and religious offerings around the world. In Hawaiian tradition, the elders use salt as a purifier in all medicine and ritual. Our word “salary” is a daily reminder that salt served as legal tender in ancient Roman times.
Salt is vital to our health and well-being. There is nothing more elementally of this planet, and of who we are, than its shimmering crystals and its unmistakable taste.
But not all salts are the same. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, published in China in 2700 bc, discusses more than forty different kinds. And in recent years, expensive, glittering sea salts are replacing regular, cheap table salts in the kitchens of natural homes and celebrity chefs. So what’s going on?
The salt crop
Whether mined inland from ancient deposits or evaporated along coastal shores, all salts originate in the sea. In its natural form, salt consists of eighty-plus different minerals, including calcium, magnesium, sulfur, copper, potassium and yes, even gold. The stuff that gives salt its characteristic saltiness, sodium chloride, makes up about 78 percent of this highly variable mix.
types-of-salt-top-300x150
Natural sea salt is harvested from coves, exposed rocks, or tidal basins. Artisan salt farmers often channel and rake the salty watersheds, then gather the exposed crystals by hand. Unrefined, this salt is ready for use just as it is.
Commercial sea salts are harvested mechanically, then treated with chemicals and additives until they measure a minimum of 98 percent sodium chloride. All the other minerals are removed. Far removed in manufacturing and taste from their natural source, these refined salts are like cheap wines—hard on body, mind, and soul, and better left alone.
Chef’s secret
In a recent survey conducted by Relais & Châteaux, 68 percent of chefs felt that salt is the one ingredient that can always make a food taste better. To many of them, nothing compares to unrefined, organic sea salt, dried in the sun.
“You use salt not to give food a salt flavor,” explains chef George Mavrothalassitis, owner of Chef Mavro Restaurant in Honolulu, “but to enhance and intensify the natural flavors that already exist. Regular salt is aggressive and takes away from the food. Natural salt is soft and sweet.” A Marseilles native, Mavrothalassitis relies on fine French sel de mer from Camargue, and for his signature snapper in a salt crust, he favors Hawaiian salt from the islands’ lava cliffs. He also prefers alaea salt, Hawaiian salt enriched with baked red clay. Chefs love alaea as much for its earthiness as for its rusty color. They may sprinkle it on seared white scallops or add a touch to grilled zucchini.

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