Several months ago, I was somewhat skeptical about shelling out four euros for a small container of fleur de sel or French sea salt. After all, on my grocery store shelf, right next to the fancy gourmet stuff, was a much larger container of good old table salt selling for less than a euro. But curiosity won the day and I trotted home with my cute little round container complete with cork lid and wispy drawing of the French salt marshes.
Much to my surprise, this new fangled gourmet condiment has become a family favorite. We almost always put it on the table at dinner time and because it has such a lovely potent taste, we actually use very little. A small pinch goes a very . Now that we're hooked I can't imagine our house being without our precious pot of fleur de sel.
Of course it turns out that French sea salt isn't new fangled out all. As with many treasured French foods, there is a long history and tradition behind harvesting the salt from the sea. There are two main areas of production of sea salt in France, one in the Brittany region on the Atlantic seafront, the other in the south of France on the the Carmague salt marshes. Two of the most popular salts they make are fleur de sel and grey sea salt.
Fleur de Sel
Fleur de sel literally means flower of salt. It is a thin layer of salt that forms on the marshes under the drying influences of wind and sun.
You will find fleur de sel both from the Brittany region and the Carmague area. The most famous of these salts is Fleur de Sel de Gu?rande, made on the Atlantic coast. It is crowned with a Label Rouge, or red label, a sign of high quality in France.
The people who gather fleur de sel are called paludiers (in Gu?rande) or sauniers (further south) and are equipped with special wooden tools crafted to fit the specific needs of salt harvesting.
Fleur de sel has a very light briny taste, and a delicate crunch making it much appreciated as a condiment. It is like a kiss from the ocean.
Celtic Salt - Grey Salt
Grey salt is called sel gris in France and is a heavier, naturally moist French sea salt that is gathered from the flats after a period of settling.
Grey salt from France is gathered according to ancient Celtic methods, which is why it is also called Celtic salt.
It is gathered from clay bottomed beds, rich in minerals that leach into the salt, giving it its characteristic grey tint.
Grey salt is sold in different textures, from coarse to extra fine, each one giving a slightly different effect to your recipes.
While perhaps used less as a condiment, grey salt makes an excellent salt to use while cooking and is much appreciated by gourmet chefs.
Sea Salt Nutrition
Because these French sea salt products are not refined, they retain their original mineral content, making them a more nutritious condiment than regular table salt. While it is true that they are not iodized, getting enough iodine is rarely a problem these days in our over salted world.
If you are concerned with consuming too much salt, I encourage you to give these products a try. A very small amount of fleur de sel is quite satisfying and a sprinkle might contain only about 50 milligrams of sodium. I find that I leave the salt out of recipes these days, preferring the crunch of fleur de sel contrasting with whatever I have cooked
Salt in French Cooking
Here's a quick look at how a French home chef might use these great sea salts.
Croque-au-sel. This means serving your vegetables, raw or steamed, with only salt and perhaps a bit of butter as flavoring. Feature your fresh produce with a sprinkle of fleur de sel for maximum flavor and minimum fuss. Croute-en-sel. This is a method of enveloping whatever you are cooking with a layer of salt. It is a popular way to cook a chicken. Underneath the salt, which you remove before eating, the bird cooks to tender and moist perfection. This would be a good use for coarse grey salt. Try adding salt to your food the French chef way. Grab a pinch of salt between your thumb and index finger and hold it high above the pot, gradually sifting the salt through your fingers. This is a good way to gauge how much salt you have added and you look good while doing it. The French know the value of adding a bit of salt to accentuate the sweet in desserts (try leaving the salt out of your cookie dough and instead sprinkle them ever so lightly with sea salt), use it as a natural preservative (for example in duck confit), and add it to braising vegetables to bring out their sweetness.