With a Grain of Salt

I grew up in Germany. It was a happy place for me, with memories of pulling up new carrots in my parents’ vegetable patch and rinsing them under the garden hose, closing off our driveway with a long piece of string to avoid Ottmar’s cows eating the tulips on their way home to their stables, walking to school with Micky Gubisch,… and having good neighbours.

Germans don’t exactly have a reputation for warmth, generosity, and spontaneity, but the neighbours we had in those years were the best my parents ever had. The salt of the Earth. When we moved to Brussels, we were all heartbroken – even the cat tried to run away. In that odd way we sometimes get attached to details, my mother especially regretted leaving behind a smallish cherry tree that was laden down with black sour cherries every year. One day one of my parents’ friends from Hamburg came to visit us in Belgium and drove up in his car, pulling behind it a trailer with a certain dug-up, wrapped-up cherry tree! I believe it still stands where they planted it the next morning, producing cherries for some other family.

Last Saturday, we were invited to a housewarming party. You might wonder how this relates to our neighbours from long ago… One tradition we discovered in Germany was the gift of bread, salt and money when somebody moves into a new house.

Bread, so you never go hungry.

A coin, so you always have enough to pay your bills.

Salt, so you never lose the taste for life.

Bread salt

I don’t know if it works, but I have given this gift to my friends and neighbours ever since I left home. As it happens, the French word for friend, “copain”, comes from the Latin con pani, someone with whom you break bread. So I have made it my tradition.

To quote Yotam Ottolenghi, “Salt’s crucial role in the development of civilization is well known: wars were fought over it and taxes levied. Roman soldiers were paid with it, and its food-preservation qualities secured nourishment for humans for millennia. Wars, revolutions and incomes aside, salt is also the way to make food taste great.

We all know ordinary table salt, but there are so many other types, all with slightly different tastes or properties. I don’t pretend to be able to tell the difference between Maldon sea salt and kosher salt. In fact, chemically, they’re pretty much identical. The difference is in the texture and/or crystal structure, which has an effect on salting power per volume. Seariouseats explains this nicely in its article about salt.

As I mentioned in my little post about pepper, Alexandre Gorrevod also sells several types of salt on the market in L’Isle-Jourdain. I didn’t see any of the kosher salt Martha Steward always goes on about, but I saw Himalayan Pink, Hawaiian Black, Persian Blue and Sel de Guérande alongside herb or spice-flavoured or smoked salts.

For every day, I have two personal favourites: I use table salt for salting pasta water, use white sea salt in my salt mill and grey sea salt for salt crusts, but on top of raw tomatoes, on a slice of pan-fried fresh foie gras, on a rare beef rib straight off the grill, it has to be Fleur de Sel from Brittany or Camargue, which gives a nice little crunch. Alternatively, I use the very pretty Pyramid Salt from Crete whose crystals form perfect little four-sided pyramids. It’s like sprinkling your food with snow flakes!

If fancy salts are your thing, you could try Alexandre’s Coconut Curry salt on a white fish fillet, or salt with Piment d’Espelette or smoked paprika in a lamb stew.

Although spices are expensive when you consider the price per kilo, only very small quantities are necessary for turning an average dish into something extraordinary. Price is not necessarily a guarantee for quality. My recommendation would be to sniff and taste and try to find what suits you, and buy wisely and use sparingly. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing!

Salt, in our culture, is ubiquitous to the point of excess. In Britain, the NHS recommends that an adult should consume less than 6g of salt a day, in France, the recommendation is between 6,5 and 8g per day, whereas the World Health Organization would like to see us consume only 5g per day. Season reasonably, but don’t sacrifice taste.

Get into the habit of pouring salt into your hand instead of directly into the food. This avoids accidents. My Swiss grand-mother used to say that the cook was in love if there was too much salt in a dish: being misty-eyed and distracted apparently leads to being heavy-handed with the seasoning, or salting twice! If this happens to you, there is something you can do to save your bacon: peel a couple of potatoes and cut them in 2 or 3. Put them in your stew (or whatever it is you’re cooking) and simmer for a bit. The potatoes will absorb some of the salt and help balance the flavours. Take out the spuds before serving. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with omelette…

Good to know: Salt is the origin of the word “salary” (Roman soldiers’ pay), as well as “salad” (leaves and vegetables Romans would eat with salt)

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