Thursday, May 31, 2012

Flor de Sal

History of Fleur de Sel
The human obsession and fascination with salt has gone on for ages, and is not limited to one particular culture, or one particular region of the world – it is near universal – a value that goes beyond it's ability to influence the way food is tasted. In the Christian faith, Jesus used salt to explain the impact that His followers would have on the people around them, the ancient Greeks attributed it with divine qualities, and a symbol of health and wealth in many cultures past and present.
Ancient Tools
While we might scoff at such a notion nowadays, with the advent of so many modern day mechanizations, salt, throughout history has been the cause of trade routes being developed, been used as currency, and started wars. In our modern times it is the uniqueness of taste or methods of harvesting, the craftsmanship, or the culture surrounding the salt which draws our attention and piques our interest. In a day of inexpensive salt, we so quickly forget that prior to the last few generations, salt was sought after much like crude oil is today.
Consider these "salt facts":
Did you know that, in ancient days, dependence on foreign salt led to disputes between countries, much like the dependence on foreign oil does today? That the fall of the British Empire in India was partly due to an unpopular tax on salt? That the American war for independence from England, particularly the Battle of Bunker Hill, was caused by salt shortages? That the Erie Canal was built to transport salt? Or that the tangled network of roads across North America was the result of trails tramped down by animals, including bison, as they searched for salt licks?
The European Salt Way is another famous trail – over this narrow pass across the Appenines toward Central Europe, sacks of salt were transported on donkey-back and exchanged for valuable goods.

More Ancirnt ToolsWhen we are asked to consider things wisely, don't we do just that _ "cum grano salis" - with a grain of salt? It is believed by some that spilling salt can bring on bad luck or a fight, which is why we throw a pinch of salt over our shoulder. Salt and bread are traditional house warming gifts the world over. Salt was so valuable that until recently the Italian government held a monopoly on it and tobacco; these items could only be bought in special stores called "Sali e Tabacchi". It's no coincidence then that the word salary, derived from the Latin root sal and the gesture of rubbing raised index, forefinger, and thumb together (like when sprinkling salt on dishes) both relate to money. In Italy if a dish contains either too much or too little salt it is considered "wrong".1

The French popularized Fleur de Sel in both Europe and the U.S. in the latter part of the 20th century, starting in around 1975 in Guerande, on the French Atlantic Coast. But the history of Flor de Sal, and of the Algarve region where it is harvested, goes back many centuries.
The Egyptians were probably the first to systematically evaporate seawater to extract salt and the Phoenicians probably brought this rudimentary technology to the Portuguese coast. The presence of Roman ruins in the Algarve suggests that salt was produced there, as it was on much of the coastline. What is certain is that by the year 1000, the Algarve was sending salt to the rest of Europe and in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Age of Exploration, salt helped Portugal consolidate her position as a world power. But the countries of northern and eastern Europe learned to mine rock salt in caves and in the mid 20th century, mechanization in the mines, cheap transport, and better roads across the Continent, made sea salt relatively expensive.

Mechanization also appeared for sea salt, including production in the Algarve. After World War II, themarenotos [salt harvesters], found they could not compete with cheaper rock salt and abandoned their jobs to find work in factories and cities.
Back in the late 1990's, a group of marine biologists returned to the Algarve region to harvest sea algae, seeking to capitalize on a more environmentally sensitive way of extracting dyes. Along the way they discovered these same salt pans, abandoned since just after World War II. To their dismay the salinas had fallen into disrepair, and were now collecting trash, and the marenotos were a dying breed. Through research and the assistance of the French who harvest Fleur de Sel on the Brittany coast, along with capturing the nearly lost art of the marenotos, this same group began harvesting Flor de Sal in the Algarve region once again. 2

1. reprinted with permission from the Mountain View Voice
2. reprinted with permission from the Atlantic Monthly and Corby Kummer

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