I love coarse Sel de Guérande salt for its purity. Nothing added. Just the salt, rich with natural minerals. Coarse, grayish crystals, with still enough moisture to cloud the printed plastic bags that proclaim Sel Marin du Pays Guerandais accompanied by an etching of the village castle and the sea marshes. The bags have stickers with the name and address of the salt producer on it, a salt producer who has hand-harvested the salt in a centuries old tradition.
A generous pinch of the coarse salt brings a hint of the complex, briny taste of the Atlantic Ocean to boiling water and enhances the flavor of the potatoes, beets, beans – whatever I cook in the water.
With a mortar and pestle, I grind the coarse salt to smaller crystals to sprinkle over everything, from battered squash blossoms to roast chicken. I keep my salt in a glazed ceramic jar I bought in Provence that has ‘Gros Sel’ painted on it and a mouth large enough to reach into for either a pinch or and handful. Its cork stopper is cork from the cork oak forests near St. Tropez. It is a special jar for a special salt.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit the salt marshes where Sel de Guérande is produced. All things historic, medieval, and ancient interest me, and what could be more interesting than historic salt works, not only still in production, but producing the very best salt I’ve ever tasted?
Even though the salt marshes have been harvested since the Iron Age, about 3,000 years ago, they were in danger of being abandoned in the late 1950s and early 1960s when sons were leaving the rude, harsh life of a paludier, a salt worker, for better jobs in the shipyards in St. Nazaire and elsewhere where salaries were better and life less harsh. As the number of salt workers diminished, the salt ponds, long held through families generation after generation, were abandoned and the sea began to reclaim the carefully planned complex first laid out by monks in the 9th century.
And then, after the protests of 1968, the movement of returning to the land started in France. Young people, dismayed by war and the commercialization of life, became attracted to the ancient professions that were still practiced in the old ways, like sheep herding and the transhumance, making cheese by hand, and producing and harvesting salt.
In the case of the salt works of Guérande, some young people who were raised there decided to return and carry on the family traditions. Others came, who were raised in cities, and learned the profession. They rented or bought pieces of the salt land to practice the ancient trade while at the same time protecting the fragile environment.
Today there are about 300 paloudiers in the Guérande region, and there is even a school now, where one can go to become a skilled salt farmer and earn a certificate. The program takes 2 to 3 years. About 2/3 of the paloudiers are members of the local cooperative, founded in the 1980s, which handles sales and marketing, world-wide.
The salt production area was fascinating to see. It is essentially a network of basins, each protected by a raised earthen rim. Here the sea water is directed, first into the outer basins, then successively into 3 more basins before reaching the last, the oeillets, where the water is finally fully evaporated by the wind and warm weather, leaving behind the coarse grey crystals of salt. When wind and weather allow, fleur de sel, considered the finest of salt can also be harvested as it forms light fluff on the surface of the water before the salt sinks to the bottom of the clay basins.
Once the water has evaporated, the salt workers rake up the pure salt and tarp it at the edge of the basins until ready to be delivered for packaging and shipping. No treatment of any kind is given to the salt.
Each basin produces between 1 and 4 tons of salt or, in some years, none. About 1 month of warm, dry days is needed to harvest the salt, while the rest of the year is devoted to maintenance and maintaining the flow of water through the network of canals and basins. A typical paludier will own or rent 40 to 60 basins, for a total of around 8 to 10 acres.
When I visited Guérande in late spring, the weather had been unseasonably warm, and dotted throughout the landscape were stacks of salt and men wielding long rakes, working to get the early harvest in before the weather turned. Normally the harvest is in June or July. It was a moment back in time.
So when it was time to choose a salt to compose my La Vie Rustic Sel de Figues, I didn’t hesitate a minute. I had to be Sel de Guérande. www.lavierustic.com
SOME OF THE WAYS I USE SEL DE GUERANDE AND SEL DE FIGUES
Royal Corona Beans with Sea Salt and Bay
It is amazing to me how good beans are when cooked only with Sel de Guérande and a bay leaf or two. The resulting broth is so rich and flavorful I eat it on its own as a soup, with just a few beans, using the beans to make a salad. It’s all about the quality of the salt and using sweet bay leaves. And, of course, Rancho Gordo’s giant Royal Corona beans. www.ranchogordo.com
1 pound of Rancho Gordo Royal Corona Beans, rinsed and drained
Enough water to cover by 3 inches
1 tablespoon Sel de Guérande
2 fresh sweet bay leaves or 1 dried
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Put the beans in a heavy pot with a lid. I use a le Crueset. Cover by 3 inches with water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Add the salt and the bay leaves or leaf. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover and simmer for an hour. Check the water level. You should always have at least an inch of water to cover. If needed, add more water. Cover and continue to cook another hour or until the beans are creamy when you bite into one. They should melt in your mouth.
Taste and add more salt if desired, and black pepper to taste.
Serve as soup, a side dish, or drain the beans to use in a salad, gratin, to puree or any other use.
But whatever you do, don’t discard the broth. Spoon it up.
If not serving right away, allow to cool to room temperature in the cooking broth.
Serves 4 to 6
Sweet Corn Fritters
Crispy brown, sprinkled with Sel de Guerande and fresh parsley, these make a good first course, side dish, or even a main course. There is just enough batter to hold the fritters together so the taste of the corn dominates. I’m making these now, before corn season comes to a close.
4 ears white or yellow corn, husks and silk removed
1/4 yellow onion
11/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons Sel de Guérande
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ to 1/3 cup milk
Extra-virgin olive oil for frying
Hold 1 ear of corn, tip down, in a large, wide bowl and, using a sharp knife, cut straight down between the kernels and the cob, cutting as close to the cob as possible without including the fibrous base of the kernels and rotating the ear about a quarter turn after each cut. Repeat with the remaining ear.
Using the coarse holes on a box grater, grate the onion. Using your hand, squeeze the onion as dry as you can and then add it to the corn. Sprinkle the flour, baking powder, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and the pepper, over the corn and onion and mix well. Add the egg and milk. Mix well.
Pour the olive oil to a depth of a scant 1/4 inch into a frying pan and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, form each fritter by dropping the corn mixture by the heaping teaspoon into the hot oil, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Press down gently with the back of a spatula and fry until golden brown on the first side, about 2 minutes. Turn and fry the second side, about 1 minute. Using a slotted spatula or slotted spoon, transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain. Cook the remaining fritters the same way, adding more oil if needed and reducing the heat if necessary to avoid scorching.
Arrange the fritters or a warmed platter and sprinkle with salt and the remaining 1 tablespoon oregano. Top each fritter with a small dollop of crème fraîche, if desired. Serve immediately.
Makes 12 to 16 fritters; serves 4 to 6
Pork Chops with Sel de Figue and Rosemary
I love pork and figs together, and in the late summer and early fall, I serve these chops with grilled fresh figs and padron or pepperoncini peppers. The Sel de Figue gives the pork that hint of figgy taste anytime of the year.
4 bone-on pork chops, each about ½-inch thick
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Sel de Figue
4 branches fresh rosemary
Dry the chops well. Rub them all over with the pepper and the Sel de Figue and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Build a wood or charcoal fire in a grill, or preheat a gas grill or a stovetop grill pan.
When ready, place the chops on the grill and lay a rosemary sprig on each. Cook until golden and seared, about 5 minutes. Turn, along with the rosemary and cook the other side until golden, about 5 minutes as well.
Serve with or without the rosemary.