Sunday 9 June 2019

Posh salt is having a moment – does enjoying it make me pretentious?

Believe it or not, you really can tell the difference between fleur de sel and bog-standard table salt

It was 1987 when I encountered salt perfectionism – or salt poncery, if you prefer – for the first time. I was watching telly with my uncle, who always stared at it with the most intense concentration, as if he was wondering how they got all those tiny people in that little box, and Keith Floyd was explaining how to salt a dish on the hob. Stand well away from the pan and lob it from a great distance, because that way you’ll be doing it as the sea would: even, subtle, pervasive. It looked a bit profligate at the time, because it went everywhere. But to think that was extravagant, when he was using a bog-standard table salt… We didn’t know the meaning of the word.

Salt snobbery has flourished in lockstep with the renaissance of British cooking. Maldon, the famous Essex white salt, had been around for a hundred and a bit years by the late 80s, but although plenty of people must have used it, they didn’t seem to think it was worth talking about. The idea of salt as a finishing ingredient was a very 90s discovery, but was mainly about texture, with the crystals said to liven up the mouthfeel. Then speciality salts – fleur de sel, maybe the most labour-intensive of the salts, and Himalayan salt, pink and not from the Himalayas but from the Khewra salt mine in Pakistan – became a thing, and it was only natural for some people to say they could taste the difference, and for other people to scoff at them. In fact, you can tell the difference, although you need ideal conditions in which to do so, not least already knowing what it’s supposed to taste like.

 Crystal method … are speciality salts more than a colourful curiosity? Photograph: Fotokris/Getty/iStockphoto

In their wonderful little book Do Sea Salt: the Magic of Seasoning, Alison, David and Jess Lea-Wilson spell it out. (Alison and David are founders of the famous, cheffy Halen Môn sea salt company; Jess is their daughter.) Fleur de sel is less bitter than regular sea salt, they say, because it has very little magnesium. Himalayan salt is pink due to the potassium, although you’d struggle to isolate what that tastes like. “I think everyone raves about it because of the colour,” Jess says. “It’s so millennial, isn’t it?”

But even the same brand of sea salt can have a different taste according to the season: seashells extract calcium from the sea and grow more quickly in summer, so winter salt will have more calcium. No, I don’t know what calcium tastes like, either. But you can definitely taste a famously delicate salt from an all-rounder. The Lea-Wilsons run tastings three times a day at their base in Anglesey, on a cherry tomato or just on its own. I can only taste salt properly on an egg; tomatoes have too much personality.

True salt lovers will use fancy salt for everything, even cooking water or brine, because regular table salt has an anti-caking ingredient added that interrupts the taste. This will, I hope, be the most pretentious sentence I’ll ever write, but in a death-row scenario I would have fleur de sel on a quail’s egg, because they are both so restrained, and a classic British sea salt – Halen Môn, probably – on a hen’s egg, because it’s such a rare interplay between heartiness and purity. I would reserve Himalayan mountain salt for the millennials because I don’t love potassium enough not to mind how much it costs.

The alchemic salting processes – the obvious ones such as curing, pickling, and the less obvious such as the way salt works on meat – are more interesting than the simple oomph you get from scrunching sea salt on to a salad. The American food genius Paula Wolfert has a book, The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, in which the recipes are united only by the sheer amount of time they take: a steak with peppers, for example, that spends 24 hours salting beforehand. This doesn’t dry it out – it’s not biltong – but it affects the texture in a profound way. I have messed it up every which way – the wrong cut, too thick, too thin, the wrong peppers, too much cooking, not enough – but, somehow, the only thing you can really do wrong is to not salt it for 24 hours. Even 18 is not enough.

A responsible person would say something about sodium at this point; how much you’re supposed to consume and how much the average person does. Then the salt lover might say something pious about how, if you cook from scratch, you don’t have to worry because you could never add as much on your own as the average industrial process adds by rote. Then the salt expert – over to Jess – would say: “People write a lot about Himalayan salt being good for you because of the trace elements, but that would be true of any salt that hasn’t had its trace elements stripped out of it.” I think health concerns around food are a smokescreen for policing class distinctions and refuse to engage.

I do still salt my pans from a huge distance, in memory of Keith Floyd, and so, I think, does my uncle.

(Source: The Guardian)

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