Salt Part 2 – Types of Sea Salt

Salt . . . the only rock we eat.

The natural salts of the sea – both past and present – vary a great deal in taste. Some are “salty” and dissolve quickly in the mouth – like Murray River salt from Australia; others are comparatively mild like the sea salts from France and El Salvador. Still others take a long time to dissolve but still deliver a wallop of flavor like the rose-colored “sea salts” from Tibet and Northern Pakistan.

In addition to salts that get their flavors from the mineral content, or the type of rocks surrounding their deposits, there are a whole host of “flavored” sea salts. Humans have infused flavors into these salts by deliberately smoking, soaking or otherwise exposing the natural salt to particular flavors. Some flavored salts include Black Salt from Cyprus (not to be confused with “black salt” from subcontinental cooking – which is not sodium chloride at all), salts flavored with garlic, onion or lime, or salts smoked with different woods, such as applewood or alderwood.

Some sea salts are just for “finishing” dishes, or for use with a light touch just before serving to impart a particular flavor. The flavored seas salts are great for this but nearly any seas salt can be used in this manner. Other sea salts that are great for finishing are the colorful ones – particularly if they are used on dishes that are very different in color from the salt to emphasize the contrast in colors. Other sea salts are good for cooking, finishing and table use. Those not needing grinding include Mayan Sun Salt and the French Fleur de Sels. Those salts requiring grinding are Tibetan Rose Salt and Peruvian Rose Salt.

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Natural Sea Salts

Cyprus Black Salt

Murray River Salt – Australia: This salt is produced from the underground brines in the Murray Darling Basin in New South Wales. Its flaky, small crystals are a very light peachy color that is provided by carotene by-product from the algae in the river basin. For me the distinctive aspects of Murray River salt is the high speed at which it dissolves on the tongue and the sharpness of the flavor.

Cyprus Black Salt: This sea salt gets is distinctive black color from the addition of activated charcoal to the naturally harvested salt. Like Murray River, it has a flaky crystal structure that leads it to dissolve quickly in the mouth. Unlike Murray River, however, it has a gentler flavor and a bit of a crunch. The addition of charcoal lends mild detoxifying properties to this salt as well. I like Cyprus black salt or other black sea salts primarily for its color and use it on occasion as a finishing salt.

Hawaiian Red Salt

Hawaiian Red Salt – United States: This colorful salt is the traditional salt of Hawaiian natives and ranges from dark pink to dark red in color depending on the amount of red clay added to the harvested salt. The red is imparted from the iron oxide in the clay. I find that this sea salt dissolves fairly quickly and like Murray River gives a strong salty flavor to food. Great as a finishing salt for its color.

Mayan Sun Salt – El Salvador: This sea salt is harvested by capturing and evaporating ocean water in man-made pools built into a mangrove forest. The volcanic soils in the forest give this salt a high mineral content. These mangrove sanctuaries are nurtured by mineral-rich volcanic soil. Pure ocean water is captured in the salt, imparting great flavor and high mineral content. It is generally unrefined or minimally processed. I find Mayan Sun to be the mildest of sea salts, with a gentle, purely salty flavor. It is my favorite of the smaller crystal salts.

Fleur de Sel – Brittany Grey

Fleur de Sel – France: Harvested off the French coast, originally in Brittany, this salt ranges in color from white to light pink to grey, depending on the sand and algae content in the harvested product. Salts marketed as “Brittany Grey” are just a type of Fleur de Sel harvested with a higher sand content than other salts, with the grey from the sand coloring the salt as it dried. It is produced by skimming the very top layer of salt ponds – so is in some respects a first pressing or an “extra virgin” product with a high mineral content including calcium and magnesium. I find the Fleur de Sel salts to add a mild, salty flavor to dishes and to take a while to dissolve due to its irregular crystal structure.

Southern Italian Sea Salt – Italy: This salt has been harvested directly from the coastal seas off of Southern Italy for more than 2000 years. It is a snowy white, medium to large crystal salt that takes time to dissolve on food or on the tongue. It is also high in mineral content – especially magnesium. For me this is a moderately salty sea salt. I sometimes serve it at the table in antique salt dishes with tiny spoons for a charming presentation.

Tibetan Rose Salt

Peruvian Rose Sea Salt – Peru: Contrary to its name, this salt is not gathered from the sea, but from dried salt beds in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes. It is tan to light pink in color and has medium to large crystals that also dissolve slowly.

Tibetan Rose Salt – Tibet to Pakistan: Like Peruvian Rose Salt, this salt is harvested from dried salt beds and underground deposits in the Himalayan mountains and foothills that formed in the Jurassic period when dinosaurs ruled the earth. It has large, jewel-like, dark pink crystals that dissolve very slowly and produce a strong salty flavor across the whole mouth. Tibetan rose is my favorite large crystal salt because, although salty, it isn’t sharp or overwhelming. Suitable for cooking, finishing or as a table salt. Best if ground just before use.

Flavored Sea Salts

Onion and Garlic Sea Salts: These flavored sea salts are gourmet versions of the dried garlic and onion salt seasonings found in nearly every cupboard of the last generation of western cooks. The flavor is stronger than your mom’s garlic salt or onion salt, but more distinct is the medium crystal size and generally high moisture content from lack of processing and lack of addition of desiccating agents and flow-enhancers. Good for use as finishing salts on roasts and other meats.

Lime Sea Salt: The classic salt for the crust around the edge of a margarita glass, its strong lime flavor also works as a finishing salt for dishes or salads to enhance a lime or citrus flavor.

Applewood Smoked Salt

Rosemary Sea Salt: One representative of a whole family of herbed sea salts, this is another smaller crystal salt enhanced with rosemary flavor that is best used as a finishing salt.

Applewood Smoked Salt: This salt has a strong smoky flavor that works great as a finishing salt for roasts and meats of all types to impart a deep, lightly smoky flavor. More smoke than salt, in my opinion.

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There is a whole world of flavor, texture and dissolution speed to be had in seas salts that are absent from processed, chemical laden concoction we call table salt. Except for the addition of iodine in table salt – which helps decrease cretinism and goiter – sea salt is far more healthy for you as well because of its higher trace mineral content that usually includes magnesium and calcium.

I recommend experimenting with them to find the salts you like the best or will use on a regular basis. One way to do this is to buy one of the many samplers of sea salt available on the market and tasting each one on a small bit of neutrally flavored cracker with butter or a gently-flavored vegetable like a cucumber. Go ahead, have fun experimenting with flavors and discover something new about salt – remember, salt is the only rock we eat. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photographs of Sea Salts borrowed from Google images.)

Salt – Part 1: Introduction and Prehistory

Sea Salt Crystals

Salt – our oldest flavoring. Integral to plant and animal physiology, we need it to live. Vast empires have been built on its tax or on its trade. Protests have been lodged, wars have been fought over the means of its production, and men have died for the control of salt sources.

In addition, we have many ritual uses for salt. Many religions use it to purify people or places, or to drive off malevolent spirits who may be hovering nearby. Symbolic of incorruptibility and immortality, salt is sometimes placed on the lips of the infant in Christian baptisms and sometimes salt is thrown into a coffin before burial. So, we are ritually salted when we enter and when we exit this world.

Across human history salt has also been widely used as medicine – with varying uses assigned to different types.

Archaeological evidence for massive salt works from more than 8000 years ago have been found in Eastern Europe, with artifacts for the boiling of brine and the recovery of salt abound. But this large and complex Romanian salt works is already an advanced Neolithic industry – the harvesting of natural salt sources from the edge of saline lakes or directly from the sea is far more ancient and widespread than even that. It’s just that the small-scale gathering and porting from salt sources to another location leaves little evidence for archaeologists to find.

Many animals seek out and consume natural sources of salt. Chimpanzees eat sodium-rich pith from raphia palm trees as a source of salt. Humans, on the other hand, add salt to foods that lack salt. At what point in our evolution did we start to do that? Japanese macaques throw rice into water to separate it from sand and possibly to salt it. They also teach this behavior to younger animals, who in turn, pass it on. So other primates – our distant cousins – are potentially salting some of their food as well. Unlike us, however, the macaque use of salt is currently limited to one or two food items – rice and possibly potatoes – and not used on a wide variety of items in their diet.

Salt gathering and production has often been tied to the rise of agriculture and the switch to large amounts of vegetable matter in the human diet. This link is based more on flawed assumptions and conjecture than on actual evidence. The first error is that pre-agricultural humans ate a lot of meat and that we got the salt required by our bodies from the consumed meat. We now know that the idea of “man the hunter” is a myth. Man the scavenger and gatherer with some consumption of fresh meat (and fish/shellfish) is a more accurate depiction of most early human diets. If anything, the consumption of meat increased with the rise of agriculture, because pastoral sources could then supplement hunting and fished meat sources. So if the meat-salt link is broken, what is there to link salt consumption and the rise of agriculture? Not a lot. I argue that salt gathering and production is rather an ancient practice for our species and its relatives – we have just not found much direct evidence of it yet.

Harvesting Sea Salt

The Arawak natives encountered by Columbus and his crew had knowledge of salt harvesting from the sea and already had a discrete division of labor in their society to include salt makers. (They also used the salt to preserve and flavor foods wrapped in leaves and to make a predecessor of today’s jerk-chicken, but that is a story for another day). Since native knowledge of saltworks predated European contact, this is indirect evidence of salt harvesting as knowledge that the earliest Paleo-Indians brought with them across Beringia some 20,000 years ago or more. We clearly have more digging to do.

These days, the availability of salt is yet another modern convenience we take for granted. Think about it next time you reach for a salt source when you cook or eat – you are holding nothing less than the history of humanity in your hand.

(Words by Laura Kelley Photo of Sea Salt by Martateron@Dreamstime.com and photo of Harvesting Sea Salt from Google Images. Special thanks to the dancing bear for suggesting the topic.)

Culinary History Mystery #3: Garum and Nuoc Mam

A post about how Garum and Nuoc Mam are related through a west-to-east technology flow.

You heard it here first folks: Over the course of the next six months or so, the kitchens of Chez Kelley are going to make the fish sauce of the ancients or garum. More accurately, we are going to compare easy or quick methods with traditional outdoor fermentation. If we haven’t been run out of the neighborhood, we will report our results in an end of summer post.

Asian and Italian Fish Sauce

I’ve been interested in making my own garum for a while now, and have a few traditional and modern recipes in hand to try. For those of you not familiar with this culinary wonder of the ancient world, it is a magical, translucent amber liquid that results from the fermentation of salted fish. When used with a heavy hand, the sauce understandably lends a fishy flavor to foods. When used with a lighter touch, it imparts a subtle, undeniably savory quality to dishes that is nothing short of absolutely delicious.

Interestingly, modern science has shown that analysis of remnants from ancient garum production from Pompeii has shown a pattern of free amino acids high in free glutamate followed by sweet-tasting glycine and alanine. These amino acid patterns are similar in modern Italian fish sauce (colatura di alici) and in some modern Asian fish sauces.

Importantly, fish sauce doesn’t appear in Asia until well into the period known as the Early Middle Ages in Europe, almost 1,000 years after its documented use in the west. Its use in China and Japan diminishes after about the 14th Century ACE, because of the rise of soy sauces, but in Southeast Asia, fish sauce use remains strong to the present day. Umami is as savory does.

A Garum Production Site Near Cadiz

Like salt-baked fish, garum production started with the Phoenicians in Carthage who controlled the Mediterranean salt trade from Spain and Morocco across Europe and North Africa to the Levant and well into Western Africa. The largest installations in the western Mediterranean was located at Lixus, on the Atlantic coast of Mauretania (Morocco), with another one in New Carthage (Cartegena) in southern Spain. Spanish garum was renowned as being of the highest quality and was traded widely across the ancient world. The Black Sea (Euxine) was another prominent area for the production of garum. Pompeii was the home of a major garum processing industry. Here, the liquid from already fermented fish was diluted and flavored with a wide variety of substances including wine, must, vinegar, honey and multiple herbs and spices.

The earliest mention of garum fish sauce is to be found in the agricultural writings of the Carthaginian Mago which was translated into Latin after the Third Punic War, but composed probably in the 6th or 5th Century BCE around the time of the rule of Magon (550-530 BCE). Cato the Elder mentions the trade of “Carthaginian fish sauce” in the 2nd Century BCE, and later descriptions can be found in The Deipnosophistae (The Philosopher’s Dining Table) by Athenaeus, I. 4b; II. 67f, c (3rd Century ACE). Athenaeus also mentions the remains of garum or liquamen production called allec which is not unlike the anchovy paste still used in Mediterranean cooking today.

Many different fish were used to make garum or liquamen in the ancient Mediterranean world with Tuna used during their seasonal migrations past Spain and Morocco, and mackerel, sardines and especially anchovies used during other times of the year. In fact, the remains of seasonally available fish from garum processing jars at Pompeii was the way that archaeologists confirmed the August date of the eruption of Vesuvius. Anchovies form the backbone of Asian fish sauce production for export, but many other local salt-water and inland fresh-water fish and shellfish are used for local and regional consumption.

Garum Amphorae from the Pompeii Pottery

The production of garum and Asian fish sauce is virtually the same as well. Fresh fish and salt in some proportion (recipes vary widely from 5:1 to 2:1) are layered in barrels, clay pits or earthenware crocks. Because of their large size, tuna were cut up before fermenting to prevent putrefaction, but most fish – especially the small species are processed whole and intact. In Rome, oregano and other herbs were added at the production phase for both flavor and to suppress bacterial overgrowth, but this step is largely omitted in the production of Asian sauces. The vats are then left to ferment – sometimes covered or sometimes uncovered (Carthaginian and Roman) in the heat and stirred every few days to a week to ensure even enzymatic digestion of the fish.

Basically the digestive enzymes of the very fresh fish digest themselves. The period of time the fish are allowed to digest varies widely between ancient west and modern Asian production, but it ranges from about 3 months to almost 1 year. As the fish ferments and decreases in bulk, bricks or a weighted bamboo mat is placed on top of the mass and presses down on the fish. When completed, the vats are siphoned from the bottom, or drainage holes opened in the bottom and the liquid is allowed to drain out. Multiple simple filtrations later, and the translucent amber fluid begins to emerge. In both east and west, the first draft is considered the highest quality sauce. Lastly the fluid is diluted with water to different degrees for culinary use. As stated above, the fish paste that remains after the garum or fish sauce is withdrawn is also used in the kitchen.

Ancient Romans flavored their garum extensively. For example, one recipe for oenogarum is a 1:1 dilution of garum with must from sweet white wine. This basic recipe can be augmented with both vinegar and pepper, or with crushed garlic, vinegar and salt. Other recipes have garum mixed with red wine must, vinegar, mint, coriander and honey. Commonly used herbs to flavor garum included dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano – depending on what the garum was going to be used for. Oxygarum was garum diluted primarily with vinegar and meligarum was garum cut primarily with honey. Modern Italians combine the basic colatura with herbs and other flavors during the cooking process, but generally don’t flavor the fish sauce directly. For example, I cooked a pasta dish last night that had colatura, garlic, lemon zest, capers, chives and parsley in an extra-virgin olive oil base – it was divine.

Making Colatura and Nuoc Mam

Like the Ancient Romans, modern Asians use prepared fish sauce a lot. Vietnamese nuoc mam cham is a great example of this. Recipes for nuoc mam cham (or just nuoc cham) vary a great deal from region to region (and from family to family) but generally have some combination of nuoc mam, lime juice, garlic, chili peppers, rice vinegar and oftentimes sugar. There is also nuoc mam gung in which ginger and peanut or sesame oil is used to flavor the nuoc mam along with lime juice and chilis. The Cambodian tuk trey has similar ingredients to nuoc cham, but adds pounded peanuts to the mix. The Japanese shottsuru mixes fermented fish sauce with malted rice for a darker, deeper fish sauce and in the Philippines; people use calamansi citrus or lemon and pepper to flavor their fish sauce patis.

So, once again, we can identify a product that flowed from west to east and was eagerly adopted by Asians on the Silk Road. The recipes for garum changed and adapted as they moved east and became nuoc mam and nam pla according to cultural preferences and what gifts the Asian seas had to offer. Archaeologists and food scientists are working to confirm these flows and linkages, so stay tuned to this channel to learn more about garum production in the ancient world and in the kitchen of Chez Kelley.

Right now, I’ve got to run, my husband is preparing a rocking Parsi salad with fresh turmeric, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and lime juice that smells incredible! (Words and Photo of Garum Amphorae from the Pompeii Pottery by Laura Kelley; photo of Modern Asian and Italian Fish Suaces from commercial culinary sites; Garum Production Facility near Cadiz, Spain from Wikimedia, and the photos of colatura and nuoc mam production from google images).

Culinary History Mysteries #1: Salt-Baked Fish

Salt-Baked Fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friend and colleague in cyberspace, Chef Miles Collins provided the inspiration for this post by blogging about Salt-Baked Fish – a dish he was prepping for the menu of a family of restaurants in Spain. The restaurants serve up Spanish and related Mediterranean specialties with emphasis on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. Miles post describes in nice detail how encasing a whole prepared fish in a vault of salt (measured in pounds or kilos) and baking it acts to steam and flavor the fish in a simple but delicious way. Some modern recipes call for adding herbs and spices or lemons to the fish prior to covering it with a thick salt crust while others call for adding lemon zest, lavender or other seasoning to the salt to add flavor. Either way, the fun part comes after the baking when the hardened salt crust is cracked to reveal the moist and delectable fish within.

I have long been fascinated by this dish, because so many nations have claimed it as their own. The Spanish have laid claim to it as have the French, Portuguese and Italians. The Moroccans have a version and the dish appears with East Asian additions such as ginger, star anise and wolfberries on Southern Chinese menus. I can smell a Silk Road Mystery from miles away – so I did a little research.

Even a few hundred years ago, this dish would have been expensive to prepare, because of the huge amount of salt needed to prepare it. Further back, it would have been a feast dish or reserved only for the wealthy and prosperous. The only people who could have originated this recipe on an ordinary budget were people in salt-producing areas. The recipe also seemed a bit to simple to be a European dish – or so I thought.

The earliest reference to anything that resembles Salt-Baked Fish in China is a recipe for Salt-Baked Chicken from Dong Jing in Guangdong during the Qing Dyansty (1644-1911). The recipe actually arose from the earlier preservation of cooked chickens in the salt fields of the area – which gave added flavor. I wasn’t satisfied, however, that this was the root recipe for the Spanish one that Miles blogged about, so I kept on digging.

Thinking about other salt producing areas, I turned next to North Africa or other parts of the Muslim world for the source of the recipe. I found one reference to it in Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World. She writes about Shad Cooked in Salt which she says comes from, “a thirteenth century Muslim cookbook”. Unfortunately, that is the only definitive historical provenance that is offered for the recipe. It might be from Ibn Khalsun, an Andalusian author, but I’m guessing. In that recipe, one puts a layer of salt on a new terra-cotta tile, place the prepped fish on top, add another layer of salt and bake it in an oven – sounds like a good ancestral recipe for the Spanish one being offered at the restaurants that Miles creates menus for. Interestingly, the 13th Century recipe serves the fish with a selection of sauces, including: 1.) an appetizing sauce of oil, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, salt and black or long pepper; and 2.) a dark sauce (called murri) of small fish fermented with salt, oil, aromatic herbs, fennel and coriander. There is a lot of regional variation for murri recipes, but some call for barley, still others for wine.

But, the story doesn’t end in the 13th Century.

The earliest recipe I’ve found to date for salt-baked fish is from the 4th Century BCE in the fragments of Archestratus’ Life of Luxury. Archestratus was a Greek living in Sicily who espoused simple cooking methods, usually with minimal herbs and flavorings added to meats and fish. The only excption to this that I can find is a few strongly flavored sauces to optionally accompany cooked main dishes. His recipe calls for a whole, round white fish such as sea bass, sea bream or snapper that was cleaned and gutted. The fish is seasoned only with a few springs of thyme inserted into the cavity of the fish prior to encasing it in two pounds of salt moistened with water and egg whites. Baked and crust removed, the fish is served simply by drizzling first press olive oil on it.

Further research shows that this dish probably originated with the Phoenicians in Carthage along with their empire built on the salt and garum trades.  So, the simplicity I thought was, “African”, in a way really was.   Obviously, there may be Levantine roots to the dish given the origin of the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean, but I’ve yet to find direct or indirect evidence of that.  To me, it makes perfect sense  that the Phoenicians originated this recipe – given the extent of their colonies from the Near East to Southern Spain. Interestingly, this may be a recipe adopted by the sea-faring Chinese from contacts in the Mediterranean or Saudi peninsula and as thus may be another dish or ingredient that flowed from west to east. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Salt-Baked Fish by Dextrosa | Dreamstime.com)