How many times have you shaken salt over a plate of food without thinking twice about what you're doing? I've done it thousands of times - after all, salt is such a ubiquitous, essential condiment that we rarely take much notice of it unless it's missing. However, it looks like salt's presence in the kitchen is set to become far less self-effacing, with picky consumers seeking out ever better (and more expensive) ingredients and avoiding mass-produced flavourings as much as possible.
Just as balsamic vinegar has replaced more run-of-the-mill wine vinegars in many foodies' store cupboards, gourmet salt is now rapidly becoming a must-have product for people looking to turn the quality of their cooking up a notch. Once obscure products such as Breton fleur de sel are now found in many supermarkets, while restaurants are also now advertising the salts they use in their menu descriptions. The quality salt trend has now also reached the Emirates, with Dubai's Westin Mina Seyahi Hotel, for example, offering up to 12 different gourmet salts to season steaks in its Hunters Room and Grill, and Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La also featuring a variety of salt at its newly opened Pearls & Caviar restaurant.
When something as ubiquitous and mundane as salt is being marketed as an exclusive luxury ingredient, it's easy to be sceptical. After all, not many of us really think that ordinary table salt is actually disgusting. Like most people, I've eaten bags of the stuff over the years and it always struck me as doing its regular job of enhancing flavour well enough. So is the difference between standard mass-produced salt and its supposedly more distinguished artisan-made equivalents really so great?
In a word, yes. Table salt is usually rock salt, refined and re-crystallised to create small, regular and rather hard grains, with an anti-caking agent (and sometimes iodine) added to keep them separate. A fine sea salt, however, will have more irregular and often softer crystals that flake easily under gentle pressure, creating the delicate crunch that makes the texture of many foods even better. Table salt is processed to create almost pure sodium chloride, while sea salt also contains trace minerals, such as magnesium, which give it far greater flavour. Table salt is slightly bitter and, if you lick a bit of it off your finger, not particularly appealing on the palate. The traces of minerals in sea salts, however, mean that they don't just taste more distinctive, but that they can also vary significantly in flavour depending on their source. Instead of being the generic product of an industrial process designed specifically for cheap production, high-quality artisan salts bear a trace somehow of the region where they were produced, just like the best of any food.
These subtle differences can indeed alter that character of a dish. While something like the steak salts at the Hunters Room and Grill, for example, may sound like a gimmick, steaks are typically improved by superior salt, the added texture and faint marine tang of a finely flaked sea salt making the impact of the meat's lightly charred crust more delicious. And the delicacy of good sea salt means it can be used to garnish in ways you would never dream of with standard salt, such as adding it as a garnish to sweet dishes such as mousse and fruit salad (try it and surprise yourself).
But while the pleasures of posh salt are not to be denied, the variety of gourmet salts on the market is somewhat confusing and does include a few rather gimmicky products. One product about which there is a general consensus, however, is the excellent French salt fleur de sel. The Rolls-Royce of salts, fleur de sel is the product of an intricate and labour-intensive production process, which dates back to the early Middle Ages and which has changed little since. Made in sprawling networks of pans carved out of coastal salt marshes, many of which have been maintained by the same families for centuries, the salt swiftly became a pantry essential, along with staples such as extra virgin olive oil.
The year-long salt-making process goes something like this: seawater is filtered into the shallow, baked-earth pans located in coastal marshes from the sea nearby. As spring comes, sun and wind begin to evaporate the water to create heavily salted brine more than 10 times as salty as seawater. Rather than evaporating the water entirely to leave a crust, salt-makers (or paludiers, as the French call them) regularly top the pans up with a little extra seawater, further upping the salt concentration and ultimately creating a liquid so salty that crystals form on the bottom of the pan. While this salt is of high quality and commands a good price, the best part of the crop is provided by the delicate crust that develops at the top of the salt pan.
Called fleur de sel (flower of salt) because of the frosted bloom-like pattern the crystals make on the pans' surface, this unique fragrant salt can be crushed easily in the hand without being milled. With a pale grey colour due to its traces of mineral impurities, fleur de sel is usually sold in jars due to its slight moistness. It may be this moistness that gives it one of its most, er, salient characteristics: a fuller, tangier aroma and faint maritime taste that recalls a day on a pristine beach. Given its generally high price - around Dh92 per pound - it's mainly used as a finishing salt - that is, for sprinkling over foods to lift their flavour just before serving rather than for cooking.
Several regions claim to make real fleur de sel (a fine version of the product is made on Portugal's Algarve Coast, for example) but its true home is in the salt pans of the Guérande region of Southern Brittany. Fleur de sel was traditionally harvested here by women, who were believed to have a more delicate knack with a salt rake. Even today it is only harvested by hand, with harvesters carrying the salt on their heads to allow them to walk more easily on the narrow ridges between the pans.
There's something especially delicious about, say, a dish of simply grilled vegetables woken up with a fine sprinkling of fleur de sel, but that's not to say that there aren't other excellent salts out there worth exploring. But while nothing can quite rival the price of fleur de sel, there are other cheaper artisan salts that still beat common table salt hands down. Maldon sea salt, for example, has long been popular in Britain and is increasingly developing international cachet. As it is made in the tidal Blackwater estuary in Essex, the colder climate of its production region means that sun evaporation has never been a viable option for its makers. Instead, Maldon salt is evaporated by heat in large covered pans, which creates an easily recognisable pyramid-like grain with an excellent brittle crunch that marries wonderfully with grilled and roasted meat.
While I doubt everyone could be bothered with the complication of having different salts in their kitchen cupboard for different occasions, trying out niche products like Maldon salt and fleur de sel can be something of a revelation. Foods made slowly and carefully invariably taste a whole lot better than their cheaper industrial equivalents and the irregularity and distinctiveness of gourmet salts give them more than a little charm. Believe me, once you become used to their unique flavours, ordinary table salt will seem like something best reserved for spreading on icy roads.