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Confessions of a Salt Lover

The Salish Sea off Craddock Beach, a vast reservoir of delicious sea salt!

I’m an unabashed salt lover.

I’m not one of those people who reach for the salt shaker by reflex at the dinner table. I don’t even see the salt and pepper at a table, unless something yells out for them.

I’m often berated by people I love about the amount of salt I use in my cooking. They see this ingredient in mostly negative terms. It’s unhealthy, it tastes horrible, chemical aftertaste, etc. “What about your high blood pressure,” they say!

But they overlook what it does for the ingredients in a dish. They overlook what kind of salt I may be using.

Pronouncement!

I only use non-iodized, naturally processed sea salt, or kosher or Himalayan salt. If you have high blood pressure, I agree, pay attention to your salt intake, but consider that not all salt is equally bad for you!

Salt adds pronouncement to an ingredient. A properly salted dish can bring out the sweetness of that corn-on-the-cob from Silver Rill Farms that we so treasure on Pender Island at this time of year. Unaided with salt, that sweetness might be lost among the other ingredients on your plate. Salt might accentuate the acid in a fresh, garden-grown tomato. It might make the flavour of cucumber more intense, more heavenly, with the right amount of salt.

Eliminating salt from the diet would make for a grey, colourless world for those who love flavour.

And the way I figure it, if you eliminate most “processed foods” from your daily intake (junk food, certain cheeses and canned food), you’re drastically reducing your day-to-day salt intake. Extra salt added in the kitchen, then, becomes less a concern and offers a lot more pleasure and flavour to your food experience.

The salt experiments

When we moved to Pender Island eight years ago, one of my early projects was making sea salt.

I’d collect large buckets of sea water from the beach below our property. I filtered the water through multiple layers of cheesecloth, then coffee filters. The “purified” seawater was then poured into pans, where it evaporated over several days. I finished by warming it several hours in the oven for final evaporation. (Thanks to Pender Island resident and cookbook author, Theresa Carle-Sanders, for her article on the now defunct islandvittles.com website, entitled, “Harvest Your Own Salt” … I have a scanned copy of it, if anyone’s interested.)

At the end, I had several hundred grams of Pender Island sea salt. I used it as a finishing salt for some of my gourmet dishes and it was great fun telling people where it came from. I made several batches of it, and used it often in my early bread experiments.

One day, I wondered, “why go to all that trouble evaporating salt water for bread?” Instead of adding filtered water plus salt, I used full-on filtered sea water in my bread recipes. No extra salt. The bread tasted delicious, and, for several months, I used just seawater in my bread.

Talk about local ingredients! It doesn’t get any closer, unless you’re like many on the Penders, just now pulling the bounty from their summer garden.

Local ingredients

Ten kilograms of salt goodness destined for Happy Monk breads.

I take pride in the fact that most ingredients used in Happy Monk bread come from local sources. The heritage and ancient grains come from Vancouver Island or the Okanagan area. The organic white flour is grown in a more distant location, though, in the vast wheat fields of Saskatchewan. The nuts and seeds come from a variety of locations, though they are almost always organic.

Making all the salt for Happy Monk bread would be an onerous task for my company of one. But it may be the job of a future employee, I am thinking. Until that time, I have found another solution.

On a recent trip to Victoria for ingredients, I brought back something new: a 10kg sack of fine grey sea salt from the Atlantic coast of France. That salt comes a long way to Pender Island, granted, but it is a beautiful ingredient to introduce to our breads. It is unrefined and free of additives, including anti-caking agents and chemical residues used in refining processes. It is pure as the driven snow

Les paludiers d’Île Noirmoutier

This salt comes from Île de Noirmoutier, not far from where the Loire River empties into the Atlantic, and just south of its more famous salt producing area, the Guérande region. The island’s landmass is mostly salt marsh and the salt is harvested by workers, called “paludiers” (from the latin “palu,” meaning “marsh”). They use the ocean’s tides and several types of ponds to harvest the salt daily and little else but sun and wind to dry. No mechanization! It has been thus for centuries!

The natural, unrefined grey sea salt is free of any additives, and in fact includes nutritional minerals that are often purged in modern “purification” methods. This high quality salt is lower in sodium content than most salt and contains an array of trace minerals, including magnesium and potassium.

Ten kilograms of goodness

Now, let me also say that there is more to salt in bread making than just flavour. Salt affects the gluten structure of bread dough to be stretched (extensibility) versus its ability to resist stretching (elasticity). The right amount of salt in bread dough allows it to be shaped into tight boules or looser structures, like baguettes. Salt is not always for those who crave high sodium snack foods. It’s necessary for the structure of the breads we love ‒ not just the flavour. On average, salt comprises about two to three percent of a bread’s total ingredients.

I’m not telling any of my detractors that I now own a 10kg bag of sea salt for my bread production. They might be horrified! They might not believe me that I expect that bag to last about four- to six-months. The believers, though, might notice a more pleasing salt experience on the tongue and palate in future loaves. That the salt came from a world where marsh workers gather and rake and evaporate salt from the ocean. They might also anticipate the day when the Happy Monk Baking Company enters fully into its own local salt production for its bread and baking products.

I’ll be sure to tell you when the switch is made, what flavour experience you might expect when we resume using Pender Island sea salt. And I’ll be sure to let you know that we’ve replaced quality flavour ingredients with quality flavour and local ingredients.

That’s the kind if salt I want. I confess!

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