The Great Salt Tasting

A while ago – October 3rd in fact – I wrote about salt in HEALTHY EATING – PART 2.  My gist was that salt gets a bad press, blamed for a number of ills more accurately attributed to processed foods, chemical additives and unbalanced diets.  But even for those of us who love our salt and believe it plays an absolutely vital role in cooking, it may seem a little extreme to conduct a salt tasting.

Or perhaps you think that out here in Coches Prietos, a beautiful cove with a beach on the back side of Santa Cruz Island, on a fall day when the wind is down to zero, the light bright and the sea limpid, we have nothing better to do than dream up another food distraction.

I had a sample package from the Artisan Salt Company, five varieties which included our favorite, Murray River, and, to help cleanse the palate, we opened one of the best of our local Pinot Noirs, a Laetitia “ La Colline, 2006,which, in our view, stands up to just about anything else on the market – and particularly so when you consider its value per dollar.

There were three of us, the third being our regular guest cynic, Nemo, who, though he probably takes on board more salt than any human this side of Lot’s wife, and has a halfway decent palate, found it hard to believe that we’d be able to discover substantial differences in taste between these five salts.

Our first tests involved freshly baked bread and unsalted butter but we ran into a couple of problems with this approach.  First, the bread was so delicious that it distracted us from the task in hand – a bit like setting out to try six different wines but finding the first so compelling that you don’t move on until the bottle’s empty.  On this basis, by the time you get to the third or fourth, your taste buds are breathalyzing each other and your brain forgets why you were here in the first place.

Once we switched to ‘raw,’ we really got down to cases – and were pleasantly surprised to find very real differences between these varieties.  The texture changes, of course, were easy to define and interesting to note how separately they dissolve in the mouth to release their tastes. You could rather easily figure out that a finer texture might work better on a delicate dish – a very lightly sauteed plaice, for example, where a heavier flake would be ideal for a beef stew.

(And beef stew, by the way, was en route, simmering gently, while we salt-tasted.  Nemo claimed it was the best beef stew he had ever tasted, not bad coming from someone who spent many years in a beef stew climate.)

Briefly, our conclusions.

Nothing changed our preferences for Murray River.  We all love its delicacy and there’s something about that apricot color, too.

The mildness of Alaea recommended it to us.  The description accompanying the salts said that alaea contains a high-mineral purified clay, which would explain that, though it’s as mild as Murray River, the taste is quite different and more ‘mineral-y.’

The Cyprus Flake is a large-flaked salt, substantially sharper than the first two and perhaps better suited to very strong-tasting dishes.

While we were tasting and cleansing, tasting and cleansing, we experienced another truth about salt – how it extracts and magnifies taste from the foods it accompanies.  We were very impressed with the Laetitia Pinot Noir when we first sampled it but our salt tasting only amplified this wine’s superlative qualities, including a depth, a solidity, a heart-warming strength of finish.

The Himalayan, too, was described as high in mineral content but we did not experience that taste to the same extent as the Alaea.  We’ll research further and find out which minerals are featured in each of these salts.

Finally, we come to the Fleur de Sel de Guerande, originating in France and claimed – I’m sure by the French! – to be the finest finishing salt available.  For us, it was the least interesting and most ordinary.  We’ll stick with our Murray River, with Alaea as a second choice – perhaps switching to Cyprus Flake for the richer and more potent dishes aboard MV Poseidon.

Interestingly, the suppliers recommended three of the five as cooking salts but I’m not persuaded and see no reason – when cooking – to switch from either Balena or a regular kosher salt.  But, of course, everything in cooking is taste and, just as I did in Healthy Eating Part-2, I urge you to try everything for yourself.  Experiment with taste.  And we’re always happy to hear your views.

It’s all a learning experience.

Just for the love of it.


Linda Andreotti

MV Poseidon, Coches Prietos, Santa Cruz Island, CA