Christophe Gavois admits that it is "a little weird to be talking about salt right now. So much has been said about salt not being good for us." Oh well. Most of us love it anyway. I personally can't imagine life without it, which is why I'm sitting at a table with Gavois, the executive sous chef for Il Paradiso, the seafood restaurant at the Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel and Resort, eating salt. But not just any salt. Gavois sprinkles a few coarse crystals on to a plate. This is diamond salt from Kashmir, the heart of the Himalayas, and comes with flecks of wild Greek herbs: thyme, basil, savory, rosemary, oregano and marjoram. "Goes really well with meat and fish both," says Gavois.
There is also black lava salt from Hawaii infused with ashes and charcoal. "Interesting in a salad; gives you a bit of crunch," explains the chef, before holding up a jar of pink crystals. "This one comes from Bolivia, where there's a huge salt pan in the mountains. The water reflects the sky. That's how it got its name, miroir." The taste and smell of each salt is different, I discover, as I tuck into the small plate of baby veggies Gavois has sprinkled with his favourite, a salt from the Welsh Isle of Anglesey that's been smoked over oak ashes. What all these salts share is their origin: the sea.
Sea salt - unlike table salt, which is mined - comes directly from a living ocean or sea. Harvested by channelling water into clay trays where the brine evaporates naturally with the sun and wind, sea salt is less refined than table salt. Both, of course, have been with us for ever. The salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria, date back 7,000 years, while salt marshes are known to have existed in Roman times.
Is one healthier? Sea salt proponents insist that it is purer and that it contains 80 different minerals the human body requires. But sea salt also lacks high concentrations of iodine - routinely added to table salt - which is essential for good health. (Some sea salts are now iodised.) When it comes to taste, though, many chefs appreciate how sea salt - from fleur de sel to Celtic salt - enhances the flavour and finish of food. "I find it's more delicate," explains Gavois, adding that he only came under its charms a few years ago when working in a restaurant in the English county of Hampshire.
Impressed by the success of Hawaiian sea salts in North America, he and his colleagues tried adding hibiscus flowers to sea salt crystals. "When we first began, we asked ourselves: 'Are customers going to like it or not? Will they think we're crazy?'" Judging by the recent rage in gourmet salts, not a bit. Gavois and his boss, the executive chef Fabien Martinez, began offering flavoured salts on Il Paradiso's menu a few months ago. They're right on each table, in fact, five tiny mounds of crystals in a porcelain tray. "We leave it up to our guests to add them to their food," says Gavois. "The slight smoky flavour goes so well with potato, doesn't it?" he asks, as I polish off my veg. Yes, as the salt with Greek herbs goes brilliantly with the pan-seared scallops Gavois serves next. But the sweetest surprise is dessert: a tiny wafer of dark chocolate studded with a few grains of smoky salt. Who would have thought?
Baby vegetables - asparagus, carrots, new potatoes - sprinkled after cooking with sea salt make a great side-dish for meat or fish. "The beauty of this is you don't need to do anything complicated," says Gavois. "It's your everyday cooking with a little something extra." He advises adding the salt only when serving, as a finishing touch. "With heat, the salt melts. It's gone!" Serves 4.
Ingredients 750g baby new potatoes, unpeeled Pinch fine sea salt 150g baby carrots, sliced in half 125g baby asparagus, bottoms trimmed 35g butter Sea salt (smoky, herbed, your choice)* Method Fill a large pot with water, add a pinch of fine sea salt and bring up to boil. Wash and quarter the potatoes. When the water boils, drop in the potatoes. Cook for 10 minutes, checking with a fork after eight minutes. (Do not overcook; the potatoes should still be firm.) While the potatoes are boiling, steam the carrots for roughly five minutes. Set them aside. Change the water in the steamer and flash-steam the asparagus for about two minutes. Drain the potatoes. Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the potatoes, coating them with the butter, then gently add the carrots and asparagus, just heating through. Sprinkle with sea salt.
A quick shop around Abu Dhabi turned up sea salts at Spinney's (Waitrose's plain Anglesey salt and sea salt with seaweed) and at Abela's (Hawaii Kai brand: black sea salt with charcoal, green with bamboo and red with clay). The Sheraton will soon be selling Terre Exotique sea salts in its lobby gift shop.