It feels particularly French to bestow upon salt’s most rarefied form the poetic designation of “fleur de sel” – “flower of salt”. The name is given to the delicate crystals raked from the liquid surface of salt beds in the coastal town of Camargue on the Mediterranean, and Guérande, the island of Noirmoutier and the Île de Ré on the Atlantic coast. Fleur de sel is a finishing salt, applied to dishes as a final touch, to conserve the salt’s nuanced flavours and crystalline texture. In fine restaurants fleur de sel adorns everything from monkfish to chocolate ganache, casting other flavours into sharp relief with bursts of grand salinity.
To many Anglophone ears the phrase fleur de sel can’t help recalling the title of poet Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century masterpiece on decadence, Les Fleurs du Mal. And indeed it may seem decadent to pay up to £54 per kg retail for a component as basic as salt. The price of fleur de sel reflects both its laborious production practices, unchanged over hundreds of years, and the esteem to which the substance is held by chefs the world over. Yet fleur de sel represents less a luxury than a symbol of a French regional culture’s wider defence against the advance of globalisation.
The medieval town of Guérande, in Brittany, was immortalised in Honoré de Balzac’s 1839 novel Béatrix, but its true fame derives from salt. Extending beneath the town’s ramparts is a seven-square-mile patchwork of marshes called œillets, which date from around 945. Seawater filtered into the marshes through elaborate waterways evaporates, producing from its beds 15,000 tons of basic (cooking) sel de Guérande each year. Equally esteemed for its purity and potency, basic sel de Guérande is also known as sel gris, or grey salt, a colour the tiny salt kernels inherit from the clay in the marsh beds.
By contrast, fleur de sel de Guérande forms wider, more brittle crystals, often tinted a light pink by indigenous algae. Its flavour is keener, longer on the palate, more alto, often providing a ringing counterpoint to the thing it seasons, rather than a simple harmony. This salt, of which just 300 tons are produced per year, must be delicately scraped off the marsh surfaces with specialised rakes, a job formerly entrusted only to women, who were thought to be more meticulous in the work. It is still performed by hand, in concert with the movement of the tides.
The persistence of this tradition to the present day becomes less astonishing when one considers the relative novelty of a unified France. Brittany is profoundly separate, in cultural terms, from other regions of France. It was a separate kingdom until 1532, and from that time until the revolution of 1789, in recognition of its historical autonomy, the region enjoyed special administrative privileges, notably a freedom from France’s notorious “salt tax,” or gabelle, one of the principal triggers for the French Revolution. Salt production in Brittany was therefore more than employment and a source of economic gain; it was a source of Breton cultural identity.
Salt can be produced cheaper and faster than it is in the œillets of Guérande. But, as Balzac noted in Béatrix of this historical town: “...These places hear and see modern civilisation pass by like a spectacle; they are amazed, but they do not applaud; and whether they fear it or make light of it, they remain faithful to the antiquated manners of which they preserve the stamp.”
In Guérande the continuity of traditional methods has in turn preserved a consumer expectation of quality. This logic applies to geographically protected foodstuffs throughout France: from the Jura’s comté cheese to Normandy’s Calvados brandy to butter from Charentes (although even relatively standard supermarket butter in France has more flavour than almost anything available in the USA or the UK).
The preservation of traditional agricultural methods such as salt harvesting can be seen to symbolise a nation’s attitude toward technological innovation. Yet before we prosecute France for its crimes of nostalgia, we might take a bite of chocolate ganache – au fleur du sel, of course, and consider the women in Guérande, slowly drawing their rakes across clouds reflected in the surface of the salt bed.