Salt: A Battery

Great chefs know it: Quality salt adds taste and texture

And how many did I taste? At least 15, including rust-red Hawaiian 'Alaea salt, which looks like aquarium gravel, contains red clay, and has a sharp salt taste that ends with a chalky texture. I picked up a couple of Italian sea salts at the Buon Giorno in Lilydale, like ocean-water-tasting Mothia and Sicilian Ittica d'Or, which has a bright, metallic quality. It tastes like ocean water dried on your face, and I think it's going to be a blessing upon next summer's tomatoes. (At Buon Giorno the Mothia costs $4.99 a kilo; the Ittica d'Or is $8.99 for a 300-gram jar.)

I had some I didn't think were worth it. The beautifully packaged Anglesey Sea Salt from Victoria Taylor ($6.99) was all bite and no finesse, and tasted like kosher salt from the box.

As the coup de grâce for all of this salt tasting, I took a pilgrimage up to Great Ciao, the wholesale distributor that supplies a lot of local markets and restaurant kitchens with their fancy salts, and sat down with Jeff Pierce, a former cook at Aquavit and D'Amico Cucina. We tasted Pacific Ocean salts, including a metallic New Zealand salt with a prickling iodine aftertaste, and a few grains of mica-like flakes of salt from Bali. Great Ciao had gotten this to sample and it had come wrapped in a banana leaf; Pierce guessed it was the only spoonful of Balinese salt in the country. We tried a bunch of European and Mediterranean salts, and I was just astonished by the long, gentle, lingering finish of a fleur de sel from L'île de Ré marketed under the Croque au Sel brand (it sells at Cook's for $12 for about a third of a pound).

Finally, please note it's not just loonies like me that Pierce leads in salt tastings. He does some private catering, putting together truffle dinners and the like, and he says one of the most popular tricks he pulls out of his sleeve is making herbed scrambled eggs in the French way, in a bain marie, and serving them with three different salts. "Once they try it most people are pretty surprised--once they see that salt is not salt is not salt, that the salts each react differently to different foods and create their own flavors, well, a lot of people are shocked." It's one of those cultural differences that separates chefs from civilians. Chefs think of salt as a palate of possibilities, and the rest of us have thought about it as an invariant object, like water or air. Except not any more we won't.

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