- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

My husband likes to say that his favorite part of the meal is the salt. It’s a bit of a tease. What he means is that, unlike his own father, who salts liberally from a shaker before tasting his food, Maxwell enjoys nothing more than sprinkling just a few dewy flakes of fleur de sel on his food and tasting the beauty that comes through.

I enjoy the salting of the meal for the way it brings awareness to the taste buds, and I often suggest to guests that they taste the dish first and then enjoy the difference with the smallest hint of salt.

Maxwell is the one who got me started on fancy salt. One of our first dates was a dinner party at his apartment, for which he had prepared an impressive spread of couscous and lentils. Before we began eating, he presented a wide-mouthed jar with a cork plug, announcing that this salt was unbelievably good and that we must all try it.

It’s just salt, I thought to myself. How good could it be? A braver dinner guest voiced my own question, and Maxwell explained that fleur de sel is hand-raked in Brittany. It smells like the sea, it tastes like the sea. The crystals are light, and they explode on the tongue. They taste like sunshine. It’s even still wet. Look closely, he said, passing the jar around.

“How much does it cost?” one skeptic piped in.

“Seven dollars,” Maxwell said, proudly.

Is this guy for real? I tasted the dish without the salt (not bad) and then with a light sprinkle of salt, as Maxwell instructed, from a few inches above the food. He was right; the fleur de sel added something extraordinary to the food.

Two years later, on our first overseas trip together, we walked the salt flats in Trapani, Sicily. We had salty kisses that day. The salt we bought there wasn’t the best we’d had, but the visit was memorable. In the years since, we’ve always kept a jar of fleur de sel on our table, and we give it often as a house gift.

I’ve noticed that there are now dozens of specialty salts, aside from fleur de sel, available in many markets. There’s even a restaurant in our neighborhood called Salt that serves a beautiful trio of salts with their bread and butter.

What’s all the fuss about anyway? I was perfectly happy with my box of Diamond kosher salt, which I used for everything done to food before it leaves the kitchen, from salting pasta water and salad dressings to preparing meats and margarita glasses.

For the tabletop, could anything be better than our beloved fleur de sel? We were skeptical. So we gathered a few friends to put some of these upscale salts to the test against our favorite. We even included some good old-fashioned Morton table salt.

The contenders were:

• Maldon sea salt (England)

• Alaea sea salt (Hawaii).

• Big Tree Farms sea salt (Bali)

• Ittica d’Or Sicilian sea salt (Sicily)

• Fleur de sel (France).

It was a blind taste test, which means we were open to being convinced that other fancy salts could measure up to fleur de sel.

Maldon sea salt comes from the southern coast of England and is loved by chefs in London.

Our panel found Maldon to be the fluffiest and one of the lightest salts. It has pleasant, unevenly formed crystals that dissolve relatively quickly on the tongue. The flavor is light and briny. It would be an excellent choice for a final sprinkle on just about any dish. In our area, an 8.5-ounce box of Maldon is $5.50.

Alaea salt comes from Hawaii and has a characteristic rust red color that is achieved by adding baked Hawaiian volcanic clay to the salt. This gives it not only a dramatic color but also a distinctive flavor that is almost peppery. The saltiness itself is quite strong. Reviewers noted that it “sits up” and “demands attention.” It has a dry, pebbly appearance and feels heavy. The panel agreed that this salt might be good for preserving foods or on meats before grilling, but that’s about it. I paid $8 for a 16-ounce bag.

Fleur de sel comes from the town of Guerande in France’s Brittany and is hand-raked from the water only on certain days when the wind is blowing from the east. It is slightly gray in color and very moist, so it sticks together a bit.

The crystals are large, but they dissolve quickly. The salt’s flavor is bright and slightly floral but not overwhelming. There are definitely hints of the ocean in the taste. It begins quite mellow and has a strong finish. It is notably different in taste, feel and look from Morton table salt. The panel agreed that this was the best salt and shouldn’t be wasted on cooking. It is best served as a finishing salt on the table. I paid $11 for an 8.9-ounce bag of fleur de sel.

Ittica d’Or Sicilian sea salt is from the western coast of Sicily, which is known for its saltpans. Salt is collected by evaporation of seawater under the very hot Sicilian sun. This is a fine salt, so it looks most like table salt. Its flavor is very sharp and harsh on the tongue.

The flavor does not change from start to finish. It was overwhelmingly the least favorite of the panel. It would be fine for cooking if it weren’t for the price. A 10.7-ounce jar costs about $5.50.

Big Tree Farms sea salt comes from a black sand beach in northern Bali. The seawater is evaporated under cover, producing a salt that is very white in color. The grains are evenly faceted, almost like loose gems, and a bit crunchy on the tooth. The flavor is simple and subtle.

The granules dissolve slowly and feel a bit dry on the tongue. Because the flavor is so subtle, it is pleasant that the salt lingers. This salt would be great as a salt crust on meat (such as a leg of lamb) or served on the table for those who don’t mind their salt a little crunchy. I paid $7.50 for an 8.5-ounce box.

For the sake of comparison, it should be noted that regular table salt, such as Morton (about $1.30 for a 26-ounce container) usually comes from salt mines. It is refined and stripped of any other minerals until all that remains is pure sodium chloride. An anti-caking agent is added to prevent it from absorbing moisture and clumping together.

Iodine is often added to prevent goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland caused by an easily preventable iodine deficiency. Doesn’t sound too delicious, does it? The consensus of the panel was that salt, like so many other items in the modern market place, has careened out of control.

There are simply too many choices. It’s almost amusing that our contemporary society has fallen so deeply for salt.

It is, after all, just another seasoning. It gives me great hope and pleasure to think that it might be something we can use to really enjoy our food, bringing awareness to its flavors and textures. This is especially true for very simple food like fresh or lightly blanched vegetables and delicate fish.

Sure, compared to the nickel per ounce Morton salt, $10 for a bag of fleur de sel might seem downright outrageous.

It takes about a year to get through one of those bags, and the pleasure, at least to me, is a universe beyond the pleasure I get from a movie or a few impulse-buy magazines.

As for the other exotic salts, I think for now I’ll pass. I am keeping things simple in my kitchen, sticking to my box of Diamond kosher salt for cooking and my little jar of fleur de sel for the tabletop a constant and pleasurable reminder to pay attention to the taste and the feel of food in my mouth.

Caprese salad

4 large ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced thin (less than 1/4-inch)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

cup fresh basil leaves (about 20), shredded

2 teaspoons sea salt (preferably a coarse finishing salt like fleur de sel), or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Balsamic vinegar

On a large platter or individual plates, arrange tomatoes and mozzarella in an overlapping, alternating fashion. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with basil leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle a few drops of balsamic around platter or plates. Makes 6 servings.

Fresh peas with salt

8 ounces sugar snap peas (in shell), washed, dried and trimmed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons sea salt

In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, barely blanch snap peas for 30 seconds, drain and plunge into a bowl of iced water. Drain peas well. Toss with olive oil and 2 teaspoons salt or to taste. Makes 6 servings as an appetizer.

Gourmet salts, such as those just mentioned, are available in most metropolitan areas in gourmet markets or through many food-related Web sites such as: www.farawayfoods.com, www.napastyle.com, www.saltworks.us, www.deandeluca.com, www.chefshop.com, www.kalustyans.com, www.zingermans.com.

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