Nowadays, any mention of salt is often met with a warning. Our diets have become so heavily laden with sodium chloride that many people try to avoid it. But this wasn’t always the case.
Salt has a long history in global cultures as not only something that was desired for its healthful minerals and its ability to preserve food, but, for many years, it was literally worth its weight in gold. Moorish merchants traded it as currency as early as the sixth century and the word “salary” is derived from the Latin word salarium, which refers to ancient payments made in salt.
As machinery began to replace the old methods of extracting salt, many of the minerals that make salt so important were stripped away.
But that doesn’t mean all salt has lost its value. “Artisanal salts are hand-harvested and, since they aren’t processed as much, they maintain their nutrients, and only a small amount is needed,” says Virginia Marion of the Salt Cellar, just outside of Cremona, Alta. “So, you’re less likely to use too much of it, as long as you do your own salting and avoid pre-packaged foods.”
She sells many salts from different parts of the world – sel gris from France, pink salt from the Himalayan mountains and Murray River sea salt from Australia, to name a few.
Evoolution in Edmonton carries two salts from Hawaii – Alaea, that has a burnt orange colour due to the volcanic clay that leaves traces of iron oxide, and Hiwa Kai, which is black, since the sea salt was combined with activated charcoal from lava. Flavour-wise, Alaea has a sweeter finish, making it ideal for the traditional kalua pig, while the more savoury, nutty taste of the Hiwa Kai is often used as a finishing salt.
The textures created when harvesting sea salts make for more than just a visually interesting product, according to Curtis Savage, co-owner of Evoolution. Different textures work better for different types of dishes. Flake salts dissolve more evenly, making them ideal for baking. Coarser salts, like the Himalayan, are more appropriate for sprinkling on a dish to add flavour.
Chef Jan Trittenbach of Packrat Louie has experimented with Himalayan salt, most recently on seared scallops. “It adds colour and minerals. I only use three or four little crystals, and it gives a cleaner, stronger flavour,” says Trittenbach.
Savage says that the Himalayan salt has been popular for a while, but salts that are starting to gain more traction are those that are flavoured and smoked. The vintage merlot salt from Evoolution has a fine texture and a deep maroon colour, because the crystals were mixed with red wine, lending it a rich vino mouth feel.
But the crme-de-la-crme of salts, according to Marion, is fleur de sel, which means “flower of the salt.” Fleur de sel is skimmed from the top of the sea much like you’d take the cream from the top of milk. The high-end product is often used in baked goods to contrast the sweetness of a dessert with a slight taste of the sea. Duchess Baked Goods often creates pastries with fleur de sel, and, next door, Provisions carries it.
Cities were once built around the salt mines – and in some cases, the element itself was used to create incredible works of architecture. Four cathedrals are built underground in the Polish Wieliczka Salt Mine, with everything down to the elaborate chandeliers crafted from salt. Artisanal salts are starting to bring a little of that wonder back to the table, ensuring that the saying “salt of the earth” remains the finest of compliments.