The Salt of the Earth: Salts from across the Globe

Smoked fleur de sel from Wales, Hawaiian salt in many colours: different kinds of salt offer new possibilities of flavour.

© StockFood

Smoked fleur de sel from Wales, Hawaiian salt in many colours: exotic types of salt are now proliferating the market. An excursion into the world of salt flakes and crystals.

Smoked fleur de sel from Wales, Hawaiian salt in many colours: different kinds of salt offer new possibilities of flavour.

© StockFood

Venice, Salzburg, Cracow - three great European cities whose histories share one thing in common: salt – the only mineral we add physically to our food, essential for life. Without sodium we cannot survive, it helps our muscles to function, it regulates our blood pressure and our nervous system, and it enables our bodies to retain a proper fluid balance. All mammals need salt.

The Roman goddess of health and prosperity was Salus (‘sal’ being Latin for salt). There are countless biblical references to it, it is used in medicines and in food, wars have been fought over it, salaries paid with it, governments and states have taxed it.

Salt is at the very root of how our societies have been shaped and there is a salty thread right through from early humans following animal trails via salt licks on cattle pastures to the gastronomic interest we have in salt today

Industrial or natural salt?

Natural salt is often seen as a delicacy, its taste different depending on where it originated and how it was obtained. This is in contrast to refined industrial salt, i.e. conventional table salt and cooking salt, which consists of almost 100 percent sodium chloride and which, some might argue, has little culinary value due to its harsh, even pungent taste. To back this up, put a pinch of fleur de sel on your tongue and wait until the flakes have dissolved, it will give you a pleasant salty taste. It is quite different if you repeat this experiment with industrially produced, finely ground table salt.

We thus encourage you to try the various salts that now hit our shop shelves from across the world. Go and find your favourite amongst red salt from Hawaii which has been coloured with red clay, coarse sea salt grains with wakame seaweed from Africa, or sea flakes from the Isle of Anglesey which have been smoked over wood chips from 800-year-old oaks, giving them a sweet, smoky aroma. The list of unusual salts seems endless.

Premium salt prices can be very steep indeed. Amethyst Bamboo is around a thousand times more expensive than table salt, but, admittedly, table salt is incredibly cheap. The wafer-thin and pyramid-shaped ‘Maldon’ Sea Salt Flakes have, for a long time, been particularly appreciated by top chefs all over the world. From the town of the same name in Essex, England, they have been producing salt from the vast salt marshes there since 1882.

Among the more expensive salt delicacies is the premium sea salt Soul of the Sea, from Hawaii Kai, produced on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Here they channel the sea water through a closed filtration system which meets FDA bottled water standards. The salt is extracted by evaporation, but in a closed system rather than in the open air under the sun. This means the salt is free from pollutants it would otherwise come in contact with during the time honoured solar drying technique.

According to the manufacturer, this results in a delicate salt with a pH of 9.37 and a sea salt with 81% sodium chloride, the remaining 19% being trace elements and electrolytes.

Himalayan salt: healthy or fake?

The trend towards unusual salts began with the hype about Himalayan salt about 15 years ago. Himalayan salt comes from the Khewra salt mine, one of the world’s oldest and largest salt mines in the Pakistani province of Punjab, 200 kilometres southwest of the Himalayas. If it has an advantage over table salt, it is that it is less processed. Usually sold as large pink crystals, it is known to have higher levels of calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron than regular table salt. It is also less likely to have anti caking agents which need to be added to finely ground table salts to stop the salt clumping together.

As with so many commodities, the price for premium salt is driven by rarity, demand, market hype and taste, but fleur de sel offers something different; subtlety, delicacy, a mere hint of the sea. The best qualities come from France, Portugal, Spain and Slovenia. "Fleur de sel is less aggressive than other salts," says Swiss chef Andreas Caminada, “We use fleur de sel as a finish, mainly for raw marinated dishes, because it rounds off the flavour of the dishes. We couldn't do that with normal industrial salt."

What is table salt?

Table salt is the most commonly used type of salt. It consists largely of sodium chloride (approx 40% sodium and 60% chloride by weight) and is mined from rock salt. Rock salt originates from seas that evaporated millions of years ago and has been preserved in fossil form. Having been mined, it is then processed and the is salt ground to give it its fine, even, white texture. Usually, iodine and fluorine are added as these elements are also essential to our wellbeing. Preservatives and anti-caking agents are also added during the production process. About 70 per cent of the table salt produced globally comes from rock salt.

What is sea salt?

Sea salt also consists of sodium chloride in roughly the same ratio as table salt. However, sea salt usually has higher level of trace elements such as magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium. Sea salt is obtained naturally by evaporating pure seawater from salt ponds or salt marshes. The combination of sun and wind creates a crust of salt, which can be harvested by machine or by hand when the conditions are right. The finest sea salt is called fleur de sel. These are the thin, fragile flakes of salt crystals that form on the top of the salt ponds. They are raked off by hand and then dried in the sun. By comparison, sea salt crystals are much coarser and usually slightly greyer and about twenty times less expensive than fleur de sel.

How much salt do we need?

Well, in Western societies, around 75-90% of our daily intake has already been added to our foods, so in reality we need to add very little more. Our total salt intake should be no less than 1.3g of salt a day (550mg of sodium), which is approximately 1 teaspoon of salt. However, government guidelines far exceed this; both the US and the UK recommend a limit of 6g of salt per day (roughly equivalent to three teaspoons). The World Health Organisation recommends we consume no more than 5g per day.