The ancient mineral of many functions
By Abby Deering
At best, salt is thought of as a common household item — a nondescript foodstuff with no clear provenance — and at its worst, it’s highly disparaged as the scourge of public health. But, lately, salt is making a comeback, and it is being returned to its former glory. When produced properly, this history-making, ancient mineral is a fascinating natural food that serves a myriad of vital functions when it comes to our health and overall wellbeing.
– BULLS BAY SALTWORKS –
“You can smell the honey and star anise and all these spices that are inside the barrel.”
Teresa Gooden, owner-operator of Bulls Bay Saltworks, explains that throughout the Civil War, salt was produced along the coast of South Carolina as small brigades, who needed salt in their diets, resorted to boiling sea water to provide for their units.
“There was actually salt being made in McClellanville. I find that to be really fascinating,” remarks Gooden, whose saltworks company operates from McClellanville, South Carolina, a charming coastal fishing town just north of Charleston.
Gooden, driven by discovering methods of living and production that are self-sustaining and environmentally friendly, has always been curious about finding the old-fashioned ways of doing things.
It’s interesting then, that it wasn’t this tidbit of McClellanville salt-making history that inspired her to create Bulls Bay Saltworks — that’s just a happy accident. Instead, it was a hog roast.
New to the area, Gooden wanted to get the community together for a potluck-style dinner.
To get started, she and her partner collected seawater from nearby Bulls Bay to brine the hog. They boiled down the remaining seawater, producing a few cupfuls of salt, which they sprinkled onto the hog as it smoked.
After 12 hours, the salt itself smoked, and this salt was put out on the tables. People took it by the spoonfuls and wanted to know if she would be making more and if they could buy some. It wasn’t long after that Bulls Bay Saltworks was born.
Bulls Bay is just five miles from where Gooden and her team do all their processing. They go to the shoreline of the bay at the King Tide when all of the salt that’s been left on the spartina grass and the marsh gets redissolved into the bay, further raising the salinity of the water.
The team collects gallons of water, which they bring back to the company headquarters in McClellanville. The water gets pumped into greenhouses where it is solar evaporated, and the sustainable salt-making process begins.Their signature sea salt is the Carolina Flake Sea Salt. It’s the most popular with home and professional chefs. The flakes are really distinct, with a clean taste, making it the perfect finishing salt.
They take that same salt to make what is probably their most unique product, the Bourbon Barrel Smoked Carolina Flake Salt. The barrels they use to smoke the salt come from the Willet Distillery. Gooden buys these barrels from Buttermilk, a local Charleston company specializing in cocktail mixes, who use the barrels to age their old-fashion cocktail mix by filling them with a variety of fresh spices. “You can smell the honey and star anise and all these spices that are inside the barrels,” Gooden says. Gooden and her team open up the barrels, take them apart, chop them up, and then smoke the barrel parts with the salt for about 26 to 30 hours.
Gooden, who loves to collaborate with other businesses, mentions that Buttermilk uses one of her salts in their charred grapefruit tonic. Several local breweries also use Bulls Bay Saltworks salts as does new start up Lowcountry Kettle Chips. Recently, Gooden worked with friends from local business Red Clay Hot Sauce to make her red mash salt. The Charleston-based hot sauce company makes a pepper mash using fresno peppers, ages it in barrels, and when they press the liquid out, the pepper mash is leftover as a byproduct that Gooden purchases, dehydrates and blends with their salt. “It’s a little bit spicy,” she says, “but not super intense, and has a really nice long finish.” And there are probably a dozen more collaborations, Gooden says.
Bulls Bay Saltworks are currently distributing their products to restaurants within a 140-mile radius of Charleston and shipping to stores in 26 states. They are selling everything as fast as they can make it, a good problem to have, so it’s little wonder that Gooden and her team are looking to expand.
– MARK BITTERMAN –
“Salt really has a purpose solely to enhance and ennoble food, so you need to always understand its relationship to it.”
Mark Bitterman is the authority on all things salt. He has written several books on the subject, and he famously coined the term selmellier to describe someone who “provides expertise and resources to help bring the most flavorful food to the eater.”
Along with his wife Jennifer, Bitterman operates The Meadow, an online and retail store with locations in Portland, Oregon and New York City that specializes in salt, chocolate, cocktail ingredients, and as Bitterman says, “the kinds of ingredients that we often haven’t paid attention to in our past but are really a gateway to a deeper understanding of food and nature and tradition.”
Bitterman chatted with ELYSIAN about his discovery of salt and his lifelong devotion to the mineral.
In the 1980s, on a motorcycle trip across Europe, Bitterman stopped in at a wine roadside relais (the French equivalent of an American truckstop) for a bite to eat.
He ordered a steak that arrived at his table with “coarse, glistening crystals of opalescent salt” resting in its juices. “I bit and got a minerally, beautiful, oceanic crunch of flavor that illuminated and penetrated the juicy fat flavors of the steak,” Bitterman says. “It was so much more alive and vibrant anything I had had before.”
Turns out, the salt-maker, living in Guerande on the western coast of France, was the brother of the relais owner. Bitterman immediately set off to find him, and when he did, Bitterman discovered that he was making salt on the foundation of a saltworks established in medieval times, which in turn was based on the foundation of a Roman saltworks from some 800 years before that, and that in turn was founded on a celtic saltworks from prehistoric times.
“That discovery and the idea of being able to take a bite of steak and have your soul basically transported out of your body, based on the intensity and craziness of the experience — that crystal telescoping all the way back through time to the earliest days of civilization and even pre-civilization — was an incredible revelation,” Bitterman says.
Like everyone else, Bitterman grew up with salt “being this chemical white stuff that had no character, no soul, no tradition. It came from nowhere and had nothing to say for itself. But that’s not the way salt always was.” Salt, as Bitterman soon discovered, is connected to the earth, our history and our bodies.
BEING A SELMELLIER
Bitterman explains that a selmellier is to salt what a sommelier is to wine; however, salt is a little bit different to wine. “Yes, wine is there to go along with the food, but frankly, in many peoples’ worlds, wine rivals food, and you can enjoy wine in its own right. Salt? Not so much,” Bitterman says. “Salt really has a purpose solely to enhance and ennoble food, so you need to always understand its relationship to it.”
There’s an infinite amount of variety — tens of thousands of salts — so a selmellier needs to understand how to apply a structure that “gives you and the people you’re supporting something actionable, something intelligible to work with.” Enter Bitterman, who created a salt taxonomy geared around the behavioral properties of salt, including their behavior on foods.
Salt is a natural ingredient — a natural food — that comes from various points of production around the world, Bitterman explains. “Every single salt has its own characteristic: its owns crystal, moisture and mineral properties. In addition,” he adds, “salt has its own story — its own connection to the world and to culinary history.”
THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF SALT
Bitterman feels that salt gets a bad rap. “In my opinion, by and large, the anti-salt campaign is politicized baloney,” he says. “The scientific legitimacy behind it has been very highly scrutinized and is extraordinarily questionable. On the contrary, there’s some good science showing that salt is not the culprit.”
Dozens and dozens of bodily functions are driven by salt. “It’s the only food that you need to survive,” Bitterman explains. It’s important for electrolyte levels, it’s what helps balance out and makes possible all the electrical activity inside the body, and it’s important for your digestive juices.
Instead of fretting over salt intake, Bitterman says there is science to support that our bodies are “way more sophisticated pieces of machinery.” He explains: “We have a biological set point. Our bodies say ‘get this much and we’re happy and not going to request more.’ The body is tremendously effective at eliminating sodium, so it’s not a challenge to auto-regulate.”
SALT PAIRING RECIPES
Many of the recipes in Bitterman’s books are intended to showcase the foods we eat every day, but they illustrate a strategy for making your food taste way better by simply taking control of the salt. Bitterman shared a few of his favorite pairings with salt:
- Fleur de Sel
“Never buy salted butter again,” insists Bitterman. “It’s just another processed food.” Instead, Bitterman suggests buying unsalted butter, buttering your toast or bread, and then sprinkling fleur de sel on top.
Bitterman explains: “Fleur de sel is your ideal finishing salt because it has these granular crystals, a little bit of moisture, and a little bit of minerals that gives you a nice little glittering, penetrating balanced saltiness without overpowering.”
- Sel Gris
Sel gris is a coarse, hardy grey salt from France. Put it on roast vegetables or chicken, and it gives you “this big minerally crunch of salt that then balances off the hearty rich full-flavored foods you’re eating,” Bitterman explains.
For a roast chicken, Bitterman rubs the inside of the cavity with salt, roasts it, and then sprinkles sel gris on top. The salt on the inside of the cavity will help break down connective tissue, drawing in moisture and flavor. Sprinkling the coarse salt on the top gives “a minerally crunch of salt to go with the juicy chicken.”
- Flake Salt
When it comes to salad — from the Greek word salata for salted vegetables — don’t salt your dressing, Bitterman says. Instead, make the dressing with little or no salt, dress your salad, and then fling some flaky salt on top. “Unlike fleur de or sel gris, flaky salt crystals are parchment-thin and snappy and crispy — they don’t crunch and bruise and compete with the salad; they actually accentuate the crispy freshness of it, “Bitterman explains. “They’re delicate and gorgeous, and they kind of perch in a lacework on the surface of the salad. When you bite, you get that nice, little electrostatic pop of salt, and then it disappears, and everything shines in between.”
- Japanese Shinkai Deep Sea Salt aka Salt with Soul
Japanese Shinkai Deep Sea Salt is an example of how salt production can be a process with honor and integrity. The salt is made by taking sea water from 3,000 feet under the surface that is purer and higher in minerals. That water is brought into a greenhouse, sprayed onto bamboo mats, where it trickles down and evaporates until a concentrated brine is produced. That brine is then simmered off over an open fire.
The result, Bitterman says “is an arctic blue-white salt that has a shimmering bittersweet flavor, exquisite on seafood and steamed vegetables and frankly, wherever you want a really fine powdery salt — popcorn maybe, or even potato chips.”
– SALT AT THE RITZ CARLTON –
At Salt, the restaurant at The Ritz Carlton on Amelia Island in Florida, Matt Griffin, the resort’s Salt Sommelier, works closely with Chef Rick Laughlin to select salt flavors to pair with courses, from an astonishing array of 45 salts. The pairing process considers taste, textures, aromas, and flavors. Each night, he presents a variety of salts table-side and explains the characteristics of flavors and how they bring out the flavors of Chef Rick’s creations.
Griffin also infuses flavors into foundation salts, using herbs, fruits, wines and other ingredients to create new flavors. Two of the most popular flavors are Adriatic Citrus and a Mediterranean Black Garlic.
Matt Griffin educates guests on salt’s role in history and holds a daily tasting experience in the newly opened Salt Shop. He also works with meeting groups on team building activities with competing teams creating infused salt recipes. Winning teams’ salt is used in the groups’ dinner, and everyone leaves with samples and salutary memories.