3/4/2010 The Sydney Morning Herald
Author: Helen Greenwood
Section: Good Living
This often-maligned compound now comes in a dazzling array of flavours and textures from countries across the globe, writes Helen Greenwood.
We all know too much salt is bad for us. Yet we can’t live without the ionic compound known as sodium chloride or NaCl. Remove salt from the diet and you die. What’s more, your food tastes better with salt.
Thomas Keller writes in The French Laundry Cookbook: “The ability to salt food properly is the single most important skill in cooking … Salt opens up flavours, makes them sparkle. But if you taste salt in a dish, it’s too salty.”
The question is, which salt? In the past few years, Sydney cooks have been deluged with a flood of artisan salts. They are extracted from the Himalayas in Pakistan, skimmed at Halen Mon in Wales, drawn from pans in Brittany in France or evaporated from the sea at Trapani in Sicily. We are now inundated with choices. And colours. And textures.
Gourmet salts can be white (Maldon), pink (Murray River), black (Cypriot), red or green (Hawaiian) and grey or natural (Italian). They can be flaky or grainy, pyramid- or crystal-shaped. They can be damp, dry or powdery.
More importantly, these gourmet salts have different mineralities that give each one a different flavour. They have depth, power and pungency and need only to be used sparingly to great effect.
At Rock Restaurant in the Hunter Valley, chef and owner Andrew Clarke has been playing with gourmet salts. “We use anywhere up to 12 different salts in the restaurant,” he says. “We use the vanilla Halen Mon with balmain bugs after they’ve been grilled. We use a coarse-grain curing salt for meats. We use iodised salts to flavour blanching water. We use the Cyprus black salt to finish off our wood-roasted goat. We put Maldon on the table because it’s clean and has a soft sea-saltiness.”
All salt comes from the sea, whether it’s mined high in the Himalayan mountains or collected from salt flats in Bolivia. Yet this inorganic mineral carries the flavour of the environment in which it was formed. In the case of the famous French fleur de sel, or flower of the salt, which is “young” crystals that form on the surface of salt evaporation ponds, the flavour varies from region to region – like fine wines.
Alderman Providore is a specialist online food retailer that sells Himalayan, Hawaiian, Bolivian and French sea and rock salts. Former co-owner Tim Alderman maintains salts from different countries impart different flavours. “Each one has a different minerally quality, as distinct from Saxa,” he says. “The grey salt has a distinct mineral taste, the pink and rose salts tend to be more subtle and are different the Murray River salt. The textures change, too.”
This is a contrast to the traditional view of salt as a mono-flavouring. Most of us grew up with an iodised salt that just tasted, well, salty. It was mined and refined to remove most of its minerals and took away bitter – and any other – tastes. Plain table salt was also available but most people preferred iodised salt, which manufacturers starting producing in the 1920s after US studies found people were suffering from goitre, an enlargement of the thyroid gland caused by iodine deficiency. It is believed Australians’ consumption of iodine has dropped considerably in the past few decades.
Humans need less than 225 micrograms of iodine a day. The mineral is found in seafood and sea salts, both natural replacements for refined salt.
Sea salts are harvested from salt pans, ponds or marshes, or by channelling ocean water into large clay trays and allowing the sun and wind to evaporate it naturally. Sea salts are less treated than other commercial salts so they retain traces of iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese, zinc and iodine. Sea salts’ fans rave about their bright, subtle flavours.
Gourmet salts can be used for cooking or for finishing a dish and sometimes both. Like a spice or herbs, different salts lend themselves to being used at different times as you cook.
Kala Namak, or Indian black salt or sanchal, is an unrefined mineral salt that, despite it’s name, is a pearl-pink grey. It’s strong, sulphuric odour dissipates when used in Indian cooking and is magic with eggplant. You can also sprinkle it on melon or yoghurt as a final seasoning.
Italian sea salts, such as Ravida from Trapani, is produced from the low waters along the coast of Sicily. They are rich in iodine, fluorine, magnesium and potassium with a lower percentage of sodium chloride than regular table salt. Delicate but with a defined flavour, they are finishing salts that bring a salad or a sauce to life.
Both these salts were part of a tasting held by The Salt Book. A dozen gourmet, plain and flavoured salts were lined up and paired with a variety of foods.
The exercise was fascinating. Strips of rare, grilled sirloin fared better or worse depending on which salt you used.
The coarse rock crystals of pink Himalayan salt looked pretty but the Ravida sea salt from Sicily made the meat jump in your mouth. The green Hawaiian salt was recommended with yellow fin tuna but added a polish to prawns.
James Ballingall, program director at the William Blue College of Hospitality Management in North Sydney, which hosted the tasting, used a brine made from Olsson’s macrobiotic salt to cure a chicken before roasting. The wonderful, tender, firm flesh tasted more like chicken than most birds, apart from organic chooks.
Good all-rounders, favoured by chefs and home cooks, are the Maldon sea salt and the home-grown Murray River salt. Guerande Fleur de Sel stood out as a pure, light seasoning that should only be used at the table.
Fleur de sel is a soft, moist salt that looks like sea foam and surprises consumers who are used to their salt being dry and grainy. Italian salts such as those from Trapani are also moist and often off-white.
The wonderful Riserva Camillone from Cervia in the Emilia Romagna region is strangely sweet. Flavoured salts such as Netherlands smoked salt, Tetsuya’s truffle salt, Cyprus lemon salt flakes and vanilla fleur de sel figured in the tasting, too.
They overpowered the plain ones and need to be used carefully.
Suggestions include salmon, kipfler potatoes, poached prawns and desserts respectively.
The key to a healthy diet is to cook fresh produce and then season it with a salt that has personality and provenance.
The Salt Book, Arbon Publishing, by Fritz Gubler and David Glynn, $34.99.
PROCESSED FOODS: THE REAL SINNERS
About 20 per cent of the world’s salt production is used in food. The remainder is used in the chemical industry and applications such as de-icing roads.
Most of the 20 per cent we consume is “hidden salt” in manufactured foods, from breakfast cereals to instant soups.
The Australian division of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH) has reported many Australians consume 10 times the amount of salt they need for a healthy diet. The recommended daily intake for salt is four grams but many Australians regularly consume up to 40 grams.
The chairman of AWASH, Professor Bruce Neal, has asked manufacturers of processed food to reduce the salt content of their products by 5 per cent a year.
AWASH’s research has shown excessive consumption of salt comes mainly from eating processed food and can lead to high blood pressure, kidney damage and stomach cancer.
A leading nutritionist, Rosemary Stanton, (pictured), advises people to avoid such products in the first place. “The problem is we eat so much of it,” she says. “That’s why our salt intake has increased so much in the past few decades.”
KNOW YOUR SODIUM CHLORIDE
Kala namak (also known as sanchal) Use in Indian cooking, on raw tropical fruits and cooked vegetables. It’s sold at Indian grocery stores.
Celtic salt, French grey sea salt Use for general purpose, soups, stews and sauces. Buy Coarse Guerande Salt.
Coarse salt Use for salt crusts on meat or fish, curing and flavouring in soups, stews and sauces. Buy Himalayan Pink, La Baleine, Esprit du Sel.
Rock salt Use for curing and brining. Not ideal for the table.
Flake salt Use as an all-round general salt in cooking or at the table. Buy Maldon, Murray River, Halen Mon, Pyramid.
Fleur de Sel (Flower of Salt) Use for salads, cooked fresh vegetables and grilled meats. Buy Le Paludier.
French sea salt Use in salads and on cooked fresh vegetables and grilled meat. Buy Le Paludier.
Grey salt (sel gris, Celtic sea salt) Use at the end of the cooking process or on the table. Good for casseroles and stews. Buy Le Paludier, Riserva Camillone sale di Cervia, Trapani.
Hawaiian sea salt (alaea, Hawaiian red salt) A natural mineral called alaea (volcanic baked red clay) adds iron oxide and imparts a mellow flavour. Used to preserve and season native Hawaiian dishes. Good for meats. Buy Alaea.
Italian sea salt Use for salads and to finish roasts and sauces. Great as a garnish on bruschetta. Buy Ravida.
Organic salt Standards include purity of the water, cleanliness of salt beds and how the salt is harvested and packaged. Certifiers include Nature et Progres (France), BioGro (New Zealand), Soil Association Certified (Wales). Buy Halen Mon, Olsson’s.
GJ Food The Fine Food Connection (Le Paludier Fleur du Sel and others from Guerande).
Cantarella Bros (Ravida).
Lario Imports (Trapani, Riserva Camillone sale di Cervia).
Alderman Providore, aldermanprovidore.com.au (Himalayan Pink, Alaea, Bolivian Rose, Sel Gris de Guerande).
Simon Johnson (Halen Mon).
F. Mayer Imports (Maldon).
The Essential Ingredient (Murray River Salt).
Waimea Trading, 0409 219 280 (Cyprus Black sea salt).
Olsson Industries, olssons.com.au (Olsson’s Pacific Salt).
HBC Trading, 9958 5688 (Himalayan Pink).
Kirk Food (Pyramid).