Salt: A Battery
877 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651.228.1333
France 44 Deli &Amp; Market
4351 France Ave., Minneapolis, 612.285.7643
Buon Giorno Italia
981 Sibley Memorial Highway, Lilydale, 651.905.1080
Ids Center Crystal Court, Minneapolis, 612.376.7666, Other Locations
First Of An Occasional Series
What's the difference between the way the great chefs of the Twin Cities are cooking and the way you are? Well, aside from the fact that some of them do their thing while topped with cute hats, they use a lot more interesting salts than you do.
Yes, I said salt. The plain old stuff you've been using to keep the old nervous system functioning and the scrambled eggs tasty, that stuff. Except if you peered into the kitchens of the best chefs in town you'd find that the salt they're using isn't plain at all. And then, then if you spent a day driving up and down and all across the Twin Cities looking for the salts they use, you'd find that they're available for purchase by commoners like us. And then, then if you spent a couple of days messing around with them, you could make oven potatoes that taste like the oven potatoes of the stars!
Really. Swing by Solera, the downtown Minneapolis tapas bar, to test this theory. I did recently, for a plate of the patatas bravas ($6.50), after I learned that the kitchen there adds punch and pop to this dish of potato wedges served in a roasted tomato and hot-pepper sauce by topping it with a sprinkle of gray French sea salt right before it's served. This topping of crunchy sea salt crystals gives what could be a fairly mushy concoction a bit of crackle and pop and performs a kind of sleight-of-tongue, giving you the initial impression that the potatoes are crisp-fried, when in fact they're more simply and more healthily made than that--just blanched and sautéed.
"The sel gris adds texture, but it's not too salty," explains Jason Ross, the restaurant's chef de cuisine. "You could never do that with iodized salt because you'd never notice the texture. But you'd sure notice it would be too salty."
That's because iodized salt--the regular kind in your local saltshaker--has been developed to dissolve easily and deliver uniform saltiness fast. Not so for the multitude of other salts out there, which have been developed over centuries to basically get salt out of the ocean, and tend to have gotten lots of interesting auxiliary characteristics along the way. Like what? Well, like the scent of the sea, of violets, or of plants; like the taste of metals, minerals, or earth; like the texture of snowflakes, of gravel, or of teensy flowers. These other salts cost more--from about $2.50 to $40 a pound--but on the upside they're usually sold in small quantities, so an expenditure of $4.25 might last you the whole year.
Incidentally, $4.25 is exactly what you'll pay for half a pound of one of the best locally available artisanal salts. The stuff is called Maldon and has been coming out of Essex in eastern England for the last hundred-odd years. Actually, it's made by the family Osborne at the mouth of the river Blackstone, and if that's not British enough for you, you can stuff a scone in it, governor. At high tide, seawater from the Atlantic floods in, spreads out over the marshes, and slowly, while the marshlands are warmed by sun and whipped by wind, the seawater becomes saltier and saltier. This happens every day until just before the highest tide, brought by either the new moon or the full moon, which would tend to take all that super-salty water back to the sea. Instead, though, someone whisks the seawater up into a great big pan and boils out the remaining water, forcing frothy piles of salt crystals to form, salt crystals that are tucked into bags and folded into boxes and sold at Williams-Sonoma for $4.25.
Well, unless it's very cold and cloudy, in which case the water can't become salty enough to make salt from. Or if it rains right before the full moon, which makes the water too watery. I like to think that's why when I went looking for Maldon salt the other day it was sold out of both the downtown Williams-Sonoma and France 44, and I had to drive all the way to the Galleria in Edina to get some.
Or maybe pastry chefs have bought it all. Yes, I said pastry chefs. If you've had the pleasure of checking out the dessert tapas offered lately by Solera's pastry chef, Adrienne Odom, you'll have had the opportunity of seeing what magic artisanal salt can work in a dessert. Odom served a chocolate trufflelike concoction of deeply concentrated, slightly buttery dark chocolate atop an olive oil crouton and sprinkled the whole thing with Maldon salt. The result was brilliant: The salt muted the natural pepper and bite of chocolate by flaunting its own bright minerality, and in so doing practically inverted the taste of chocolate, bringing chocolate's natural fruity background notes of plum, roast cherry, and blackberry boldly to the fore. If you want to wow some dinner guests with minimal effort sometime soon, you might warm a good bar of chocolate in the oven and serve it sprinkled with Maldon salt. It's a fascinating experience.
"Maldon is the best salt I've used so far," says Tim McKee, the chef who invented Solera and La Belle Vie. "It's got a real clean flavor. The crystals are so flaky you never have to worry about it being a hard crunch when you bite down. I would never use it for anything other than finishing, though," he adds, because once the flaky crystals dissolve and dissipate, the magic of the salt dissolves, too. Please note that all the saltshakers on Solera's tables, and Auriga's, and, back in the day, on good old Rock Star's, were all gray French sea salt--sel gris.
Which brings us to the other side of the English Channel, where the French have been turning seawater into salt for a couple of thousand years. They do this by diverting seawater into rectangular, room-sized drying ponds made of clay. The sun and wind beat down on these little ponds, forcing the moisture from them. If you ever played with rock candy as a kid, you'll know that two kinds of solids start to leave the over-saturated liquid; crystals form on the bottom, and a super-thin sheet of a crust begins to form on the top. The salt-makers quickly pull this sheet of crystals off the top of the pond, and this is the super-premium best salt there is, the fleur de sel (it is called flower of salt because of its pretty shapes and loose, light formations). The salt that forms on the bottom is sel gris.
I've read that the ratio of fleur de sel to sel gris is about one pound of fleur de sel harvested for every 80 pounds of sel gris, but the prices thankfully don't reflect that eighty-to-one ratio. While sel gris can be found in bulk at France 44 for $2.59 a pound, the most expensive fleur de sel I found in town was at Cooks of Crocus Hill, $12 for 160 grams, or about $40 a pound. Also, I find it kind of nice that you can get the best and most expensive of something in the world and it's cheaper than a trade paperback. Take that, P-Diddy, I got the bling bling with my ching ching! Or at least, my salad has.
But I digress. More importantly, fleur de sel is one of the key tricks of the trade for the great chefs of the world; it's one of the reasons why their grilled fish has more vibrancy, their green salads have more pop, and their focaccia is more irresistible. I found a few great ones in town; either Cooks of Crocus Hill or France 44 has the best selection. Nature et Progres's cute lavender container Fleur de Sel de Guérande, at Cook's, costs $9.50 for a container about the size of a softball. It smells great--sweet, wet, and vegetal, like a dewy dawn in a garden, and has a gentle and elegant finish, extending its flavor through the first few moments that you taste something seasoned with it.
M. Gilles Hervy's Fleur de Sel from Brittany, $10.49 at France 44, has a brighter, sharper initial presence, but fades more quickly. It has such a sea-evoking minerality that tasting it is almost like the first impact of a fresh oyster, without, of course, the oyster. It did occur to me a few times while I was tasting these salts that if I were a vegetarian I'd load as many interesting salts into my pantry as possible. And I'd especially try the Matiz sal del mar they sell at Whole Foods and France 44. Vikings once smoked salt like this, cooking seawater down over a roaring wood fire, and it makes everything it touches, including fresh slices of apple, taste like they've been wandering through campfires or kissing bacon.
Then again, if I were a vegetarian, I wouldn't be nearly as thrilled about this trick for summer grilling that Steven Brown, formerly chef at Rock Star, shared with me. "We used [the sel gris] to season everything we had in the kitchen," he says. "One of the awesome things you can do at home to really boost the flavor of, say, a steak, is to salt it a day in advance. Rub some olive oil on it, grind some black Telicherry peppercorns on there, and put on a bunch of sel gris. [The salt] doesn't just dissipate when you grill it, you still get these little flavor surprises of salt when you eat the steak, but it's not so sharp or strong that it's too much. That's a trick I picked up from Judy Rogers at Zuni, she does all her meat that way--tenderloins, whatever. Season it, roll it up in parchment paper, cook it the next day. That's one of the secrets of cooking--season before, during, and after cooking."
One of the secrets of those fantastical burgers that Rock Star used to serve was that Brown would smash the big crystals of sel gris with the bottom of a coffee cup and apply the result 24 hours in advance to olive-oil coated patties of meat.
Finally, news you can use!
One of the reasons I was so excited about doing this story was because the more I talked to chefs and tasted the differences in the salts out here, the more I became convinced that this is the kind of little, low-cost change you all could make to your cooking to really add a boost to your refrigerator pickles (sel gris in your pickled beets?), focaccia (Maldon sprinkled on top before baking?), or pan seared scallops (fleur de sel and a few little herbs will make them taste restaurant-made). Really, after tasting all these salts, I became convinced that using salts intentionally, instead of just unthinkingly relying on the regular stuff, makes as much of a difference as switching from pepper powder in the can to fresh-ground.
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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