I grew up in abandoned salt marshes, my playground. Running for hours amongst the Statice Sea Lavender, on mud levees and embankments, pole vaulting old sea channels to the sounds of Blue Throats and Avocets; what else would a boy want? I spent hours by a Fort-like salt loft, stone ruins and last landmark of a once prosperous time. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like, 1750 to 1950, when the last “Paludier”, the last salt harvester finally retired. Decades later, this land once reclaimed was being called back by nature, leaving echoes to the imagination, patrolled by marsh harriers as lonesome shepherds.
Life has a funny way to answer a child’s question. Few years later, I became a trainee wildlife guide, in the Regional Park of Brière, not too far from Nantes or the harbour of St Nazaire, the place that launched a thousand ships… Well, a good few anyway! One of the visits was of course the Salt Marshes of Guérande, still going strong with almost 2000 hectares of basins and channels. I finally got my time travel, a chance to see and share what it must have been like, back in my marshes due west, 200 years ago. The chance to see this unusual harvest, the fruit of the sea, the wind and the sun in an almost biblical trilogy!
So, how does it work? Well, first you need an Ocean, in this case the Atlantic. Then you need an estuary, with ramifications of channels going inside flatland prairies and marshes. The channel will feed smaller channels that will feed man built basins, themselves feeding smaller basins where only a film of water would be kept. The water, first regulated by large wooden locks was finally allowed through simple small slates, gathering important trace elements from the estuary, making it one of the finest salts in Europe. The top layer is the cream, called fleur de sel or Flower of Salt; a delicate hand harvested condiment for fish, tomatoes and roasted vegetables. The bottom part makes the famous grey coarse salt, ideal for cooking and, so you know, quite low in sodium!
I was really excited to see some Irish producers from West Cork or Mayo having a go at producing, like in Brittany, unprocessed sea salt, the methods and initial support for production might be a bit different but yet, they all share the same trilogy of elements and an uncompromising bond and respect for the product and the environment. Real unprocessed salt, may it be Breton or Irish, is not your enemy. Salt is loyal, salt is wild, it is a cure for many ills and heals wounds, it preserves and protects. As a seasoning, may it be on your last sweet tomatoes of the year, on a simple pan fried white fish or the secret ingredient to a chocolate sauce, think traditional, unconditionnal sea salt in your cooking!