To do this, he not only sells salt in his two The Meadow stores (www.atthemeadow.com)—one in Portland, Oregon and one in New York City—but he has written the definitive book on the subject. In his tome, Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes, Mr. Bitterman explores the origins of this highly prized mineral, mankind’s obsession with the stuff, as well as recipes for how to use the wide variety of salts we now have increased access to.
I recently visited with Mr. Bitterman at his West Village store and we talked about the power of salt. As a passionate home cook, I am beginning to understand the subtle nuances that various types of salt can bring to a dish. But, for the salt novice, I asked, “what makes good salt ‘good’ and bad salt ‘bad’?” He explained that while ‘bad’ salt is industrially produced, stripped of its subtleties, ‘good’ salt is produced in one of two ways: mining or evaporation. ‘Bad” salt typically tastes flat or even metallic, but salt that is naturally harvested is very complex. More than just NaCl, these salts are comprised of over eighty different minerals. And you thought salt just came from a blue box with a girl on the label!
Good salts are also incredibly local, with qualities inherent to their sources. For example, the Djibouti Cutie salt harvested from a lake in the African country of Djibouti is formed from the salinated water as it evaporates. The beginnings of these salt crystals are then built up in layers, much like a snowball. At the same time, the lapping of the lake’s waves smooth the surface on the salt crystals as they grow, so that each harvested piece ends up resembling a very bright, very white pearl. The longer the salt ‘pearls’ stay in the water, the larger they become until some are even the size of an adult thumbnail. Breaking one of these salt pearls open reveals a highly crystallized-type structure that is completely unique in the salt world.
Logically, your next question is “So, what does one do with a salt like this?” Mr. Bitterman laughed and said, “I have no idea! I feel it is my job to source and sell these salts. I don’t always know how to use them.” He added that one customer uses their Djibouti salt pearls in liquids, much in the same way sugar cubes are used in coffee: Each diner adds one to their bowl of soup, swirling it around until it reaches their desired taste. I thought this was fascinating!
When asked if he had a favorite salt, he gestured to the wall, lined with shelves, offering more than 100 different varieties. Each one is different and useful in its own way. He said, “Each salt behaves differently, on different types of food. I really like this Malborough Flakey on a butter-leaf salad but it would be completely lost if used in other ways.” I wondered if certain salts were more appropriate to certain seasons.
He thoughtfully replied, “That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that before but now that I think of it, I guess I am drawn to using stratified flakes on a roasted fish to extend the taste of summer into fall. The Halen Mon Silver is perfect for that.”
Another customer entered the small shop that sells primarily just salt, chocolate and flowers and Mark excused himself to offer them help. I took a moment to closely examine every bottle I could reach on those shelves. Each variety had a sample available so that customers could taste before purchasing. This process helped pare down my choices, but only slightly. I really wanted to take one of each home with me. But, limited to carry-on luggage, I had to choose. What could I not find back in Birmingham? I selected a Pinot Noir salt, an Iburi Jio Cherry (a salt smoked using the wood from Japanese cherry trees), a chocolate salt, as well as a Taha’a Vanilla salt.
This last one made me think of the trend in recent years that inspired candy-makers to lace certain chocolates or caramels with a sel gris or some other flake salt. In this way, the salt offers a truly elegant foil to the sweetness of the candy. It becomes an experience to take a piece of fine chocolate studded with a specially-selected salt, place it on your tongue and press it to the roof of your mouth. There are flavors and textures that collide into each other in your mouth that you might never expect to love. I plan to lightly sprinkle the vanilla salt on top of a chocolate-ganache covered cake for Valentine’s Day.
Having rung up a sale of grey sea salt and a bar of Artisan du Chocolat’s Tobacco chocolate, I asked Mr. Bitterman if he thought there was a defining moment in the history of salt. He offered up three:
1) GOOD: When man first emerged from caves and identified fixed salt sources for his diet. In this way, man was able to satisfy his “biologic, economic and culinary necessities.”
2) BAD: The introduction of the Solvay process in the mid-to-late 1800s which industrialized the salt process and essentially created that “bad” salt.
3) GOOD: The rise of artisanal salts that we have seen in recent years. The salts that the The Meadow sells are not only sourced from all over the world but they are then sold all over the world.
Here in Alabama we can find a nice variety of these artisanal salts. Susan Green of Birmingham Bake & Cook Company offers a wide selection of Himalayan Pink Sea Salt. From a fine grind to a coarse grind suitable for a salt grinder, to shaving chunks and large blocks, she said the demand is there for these products. “The chunk that can be shaved at the table is really a big hit. Your guests can add just what they like to each course.” While some might think the large 8” salt blocks are just a novelty, they are more than that. Mr. Bitterman’s book offers up several recipes for cooking on these— everything from fried eggs to flank steak. Susan has found that the thinner cuts of meat are perfectly suited for cooking on the salt blocks. Thin slices of beef or scallopini-style cutlets are great choices.
If you are not sure where to start in your personal salt exploration, try picking up a few varieties, inviting some friends over and have a salt tasting. Put out plates of sliced carrots and celery, jicama and cucumber and let each person have a taste. Keep notes and exchange ideas. A few you might choose to put in rotation are the Smoked Alder from the Artisan Sea Salt Company or the Bolivian Pink Salt—both often available at Whole Foods Market. Penzey’s Spices in Homewood offers salts harvested from both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that would be fun to try.
All of this talk of salt may cause you to think twice the next time you spy that ubiquitous shaker on the kitchen counter or dinner table. There is a world of history in that stuff.
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings on-line at ChristianasKitchen. com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40).