When I first heard of a salt sommelier in the Maldives, I assumed his appointment was a gimmick. If so, it was a successful one, as the practice of advising diners on which salt to select for which dish is rapidly spreading. Japan has embraced the concept with enthusiasm, and California isn’t far behind, with ‘semmeliers’ being the latest in the battery to hover round your table.
This may come as surprise to you, too. Haven’t the health police been badgering us for decades to cut down on the sodium? But then, haven’t those of us who care about food always taken such warnings with (apologies) a pinch of salt? Because, for the cook, salt is a joy. It brings out flavour, and keeps the nutrients and colour in vegetables. It helps the rising process in bread-making. And a tiny pinch in such sweet dishes as batters and cakes concentrates the flavours.
Is it bad for us? You bet, in excess – but so is anything in excess. Salt is vital to our health, and the recommended daily intake for the average, healthy person is six grams (that’s a piled-high, overflowing teaspoonful). Though nobody would put that amount directly on their food, it is the hidden salt that racks up, with three-quarters of what we eat coming from processed goods like breakfast cereals, soups, sauces, ready meals and biscuits.
On the other hand, salt is more than a basic commodity for sprinkling into your pasta water or on your fish and chips. It is something quite beautiful as well as tasty. Try holding hollow, pyramid- shaped, artisan sea salt from Beach Organics, Australia, in your palm; watch the giant crystals twinkle like diamonds, and consider that each small batch takes weeks of hand panning to produce the perfect grains.
Taste Himalayan salt. This 250 million-year-old salt was born in the Jurassic era. The pink nuggets have the highest mineral content of any natural salt, and it is prized for its health, detoxification and nutritional benefits. Then there is Alaea Red from Kauai, reputed to have many healing and restorative powers; and Kala Namak, again pretty and rich in minerals, mined in central India.
Here in the UK we have our own delicious offerings. Seawater drawn from the River Blackwater in Essex gives us the delicate, highly flavoured flakes of Maldon sea salt, prized by chefs around the world. Water from the Menai Straits yields Welsh Halen Mon, and straight from the ocean comes Cornish Sea Salt.
Nevertheless, what exactly can these ‘posh’ salts do that a shake of a saltcellar cannot? Well, all table salts contain added anti-caking agents to prevent them from clogging and many are bleached to change their yellowish colour to white. Whereas natural salts are, unsurprisingly, natural. They have varying intensities of flavour and texture, so often less is needed. They are rich in vital mineral content, and they look good in their pretty colours.
These salts transcend use as a mere condiment. Try light sprinklings of salt flakes on a crisp green salad, or small potatoes rolled in olive oil before baking with a pinch of a damp, sticky Fleur de Sel or Sel de Guérend. Or bake meats or fish in a salt crust: when cracked open after cooking, it gives a tender, moist, perfectly seasoned food.
Acquamara, an innovative company from the Hebrides, sells fresh salty seawater for cooking and, despite my initial scepticism, when I tried cooking fish, seafood, vegetables and pasta in varying concentrations, I got delicious, delicately salt-flavoured food.
We have loved salt for thousands of years, and how much poorer our foods would be without it. So let’s hope that, as the health police stare at it under their microscopes, they discover they’re looking at the giant hollow or Himalayan variety. Then they too will be captivated by its beauty, stop worrying quite so much – and perhaps call over the semmelier to ask for another cellar-full.