Basic Ingredients: Great Salt from the French Atlantic Coast

Salt ponds near Guérande, on the French Atlantic Coast (photo by Robert Bonnell)

 

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about what makes for quality salt, and my friends and correspondents in France, Robert and Annette Bonnell, wrote to tell me about Sel de Guérande, which they think is the tastiest and finest of all salt.   So, of course, they made a journey to the French Atlantic Coast to investigate. Robert reports:

The man in the photo below is Serge de Lettre and he’s a paludier, which is the word they use on that part of the French Atlantic coast for a salt harvester.  The paludier (or paludiere if the harvester is a woman) maintains his or her own series of interconnected salt ponds. They harvest two types of salt.  The salt which is produced in the greatest

Serge de Lettre offering his salt (gros sel and fleur de sel) for sale in the local marketplace

volume is called either sel gris (gray salt) or gros sel (large-crystal salt).  It’s what you get when the water evaporates from the salt pond, so it’s composed of the various salts in seawater plus a little of the clay from the bottom and edges of the pond (that’s why it’s gray).  It’s normally used for cooking. The small volume, more expensive salt is called fleur de sel (flower of salt).  It’s produced when a warm wind blows over a salt pond which has evaporated enough to have a fairly high saline content.  The wind causes a film of salt to form on top of the water.  This is harvested by carefully skimming it off the surface.  In compostion it’s not just dried seawater – the process results in higher concentrations of magnesium, for example, and lower concentrations of sodium than in seawater.  Fleur de sel can be used for cooking, but it’s more often used to season food after it’s cooked.  After you use it for a while, regular table salt tastes really briny.

They produce salt by hand at various places along the coast, but Guérande has the best reputation.  I don’t know whether this has to do with the opinion of expert salt tasters or just skillful marketing.  At any rate, you see certain products like butter and caramel advertising that they are made with Guérande salt.  You seldom see the salt from any other region referred to by name like that.

I think that most of the paludiers in the Guérande region sell their salt through a cooperative, but there are also independents like Serge de Lettre.  When he’s not working on his salt pond he’s in the town of Guérande selling his salt.  Guérande is a walled medieval city on a hill above the salt marshes.  Nowadays its main business is tourism.  We were attracted to Serge’s shop, which looks more like a garage, because it looked so serious.  All the other places which sell salt within the city walls also sell mugs, bowls, shortbread, caramels, postcards and other tourist items.  De Lettre just has his own salt and maybe some salicorne (a salt weed which makes good pickles).  He likes to talk about salt harvesting (not easy).  In one season there’s wading around in cold water, in another there’s harvesting salt in intense heat.  There are the mosquitoes.  And of course you can’t wear sunscreen or insect repellant around that kind of fancy salt.  As a result paludiers, men and women, tend to be a leathery bunch.

The photo was taken in April, so the salt pond has been put into good shape for the summer season, but no actual production will take place until it warms up considerably.  I would guess that the building in the background is probably used to keep harvested salt out of the rain, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

The Guérandais salt producers have an interesting web site:  http://www.seldeguerande.fr/index.php   (and note that there is an English translation)

Salt ponds on the Île de Ré (photo by Robert Bonnell)--Note comment below

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One response

  1. This further note from Robert Bonnell, via email:

    To belabor the topic a bit, we went hiking through another set of salt ponds this weekend, on the Île de Ré, which is an island off of La Rochelle, maybe 100 miles down the coast from Guèrande. Here are some photos I took. There’s a lot of a activity going on now. The salt ponds have been mainly emptied of water and the sauniers (the term they use on the Île de Ré) are preparing the bottom of the ponds with a long-handled sort of wide hoe called a boyette. The water in the channel in the foreground of the photos is used to feed seawater into the salt ponds, but at the moment the access of the water to the ponds is blocked while the maintenance is being performed. Later the ponds will be filled and then the gates will be closed again while the pond water is evaporating.

    – Robert

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