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Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Flower of Salt - Fleur de Sel


I find the rich history of elegant Fleur de Sel fascinating and wonder what it must have been like to have been salt farmer centuries ago.

Fleur de Sel has been harvested in France’s Brittany region since the 9th century.  The most sought after variety comes from the salt marshes of Guérande.  Other varieties you might see are Fleur de Sel de I’lle de Noirmoutier and Fleur de Sel de Camargue. We love Fleur de Sel de Guérande.

If you travel through this region of France you will be struck by the number of salted caramel foods available – all made with Fleur de Sel.  From Salted Caramel Macarons (check out our Salted Caramel recipe), to schnapps, ice cream and sable cookies.  It’s really salted caramel heaven.

How Fleur de Sel is harvested


Water from the Atlantic is brought into the marshes through a series of waterways.  The water is cleared of fish and other marine life in a basin known as a vasière and then sent into narrower channels.  Once within the marsh ponds, the water is allowed to naturally evaporate to a depth of a centimeter or so.  Under the proper weather conditions, the delicate crystals that constitute Fleur de Sel then float on the surface and it is time to harvest them.

the salt pans at guerande in France

As they have done for centuries, the paludiers (salt farmers) entrust the delicate job of harvesting the salt to specialists.  The salt harvesters carefully collect the crystals from the surface of the water using a lousse à de fleur, a wooden rake designed for salt harvesting.

a paludier's salt rake used to harvest fleur de sel


Harvesting Fleur de Sel takes talent and patience.  The harvesters must take care not to collect the harder, coarser salt at the bottom of the ponds. Centuries ago the job was entrusted only to women; men were thought to be too impatient and rough for such a tedious procedure.

The women harvesters would place the salt in large bowls (gèdes), weighing around 30 kilos (65 pounds) and carry them on their heads. While I would love to try my hand at raking in the salt, I’d prefer to skip this part. Since the 1930s, wheel barrows have been used instead, but the salt is still harvested by hand.  Mechanical harvesting is not an option, since it would crush the delicate salt crystals.

It’s all in the Crystals


Salt expert Mark Bitterman says that the shape of salt crystals have a dramatic impact on the taste. Fleur de Sel has small and large crystals, unevenly shaped, which allows it to provide constant flavour.  The smaller crystals dissolve first, giving immediate saltiness, while the larger crystals dissolve more slowly, providing another surge of taste.

Moisture Matters


Unlike drier, ordinary table salts, Fleur de Sel retains about 10.3% moisture, making it more resistant to dissolving. This helps to make it the perfect finishing salt.  It retains both its crispness and taste when used on moist or steaming foods, providing a fine crunch to food.

Beyond Sodium

This fine salt is also an excellent example of how healthy sea salts can be.  It is high in nutritious minerals, thanks to the natural evaporation process used to harvest it. Along with sodium chloride, authentic Fleur de Sel contains various amounts of trace minerals, and iron, manganese, and zinc; according to Mark Bitterman, it averages .37% magnesium, .25% calcium, and .09% potassium.  This gives it a mellow flavour, making it the most versatile finishing salt, suitable for a variety of foods.

If you are new to artisan salts and are looking for an excellent, all-around variety, I highly recommend trying a quality Fleur de Sel deGuérande to finish your food with a delicate (i.e. not overpowering) flavour of the sea.


Sources:


Bitterman, Mark.  “The Four Facets of Fleur de Sel” Salt News. http://www.saltnews.com/2006/12/the-four-facets-of-fleur-de-sel/


Lebowitz, David.  “Fleur de Sel” David Lebowitz—living the sweet life in Paris, September 5, 2006.  http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2006/09/fleur-de-sel-de-1/

Photos: The Salt Box International

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