Thursday, September 30, 2010

AS BLACK AS SALT




How would you reply if you were asked “now, would you like white pepper and black salt with that?”.

Excuse me? Sounds a little Heston Blumenthal doesn’t it?

Until recently I would have laughed at that question. But recently I bought a small packet of black, yes black, salt – a little cellophane bag of lovely flakes as black as coal.

I’ve already got all shades of salt in my pantry cupboard – palest pink Murray River salt, dove grey Esprit du Sel, sparkling white Fleur de Sel de Guérande from France – and now I have added black Cyprian salt from Cyprus.

Victor Churchill butchers in Woollahra, Sydney, have a whole wall of magnificent blocks of Himalayan salt, carved from immense slabs of pure salt, glowing an icy apricot. They are used to help age the meat.

But I had never seen jet black salt before.

A little research in a book I have, The Salt Book tells me that there is a Hawaiian black lava salt as well. And no, neither salt comes from the ground black. Volcanic charcoal is added to the Hawaiian one, and the Cypriot salt has activated charcoal added. Both salts are seen as being healthier because of this, with a detoxifying effect, which many believe makes it healthier.

I’d rather think of it as a rather wacky seasoning. One that adds a dramatic twist to dishes. A certain zappy colour accent.

Consider these recent menu items and picture the effect: butter poached Western Australian marron, foie gras parfait, sprinklings of salmon roe and black Cyprian salt, (The Point, Albert Park, Melbourne) and a salt and butter flight of goat's butter with red Hawaiian sea salt, Vermont butter with black Cyprian salt, and parmigiano reggiano butter topped with truffle salt, (Juicy, Chicago).

Interestingly there is another salt, Indian black salt or kala namak that is a powdery pink. Some say it has the aroma of cooked eggs, and is recommended in ayurvedic medicine as a digestive, and in India is thought to be useful for people with high blood pressure and those on low-salt diets, and also generally for indigestion.

Who knows!

First-century AD Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the elder, not always the most reliable scientific guru, refers to Cyprian salt as a “precious stone”. In its white state it was also mentioned by Hippocrates, the father of medicine. It is usually collected from coastal rocks as well as from the island’s salt lakes.

No wonder these scholars mentioned it. The Romans valued salt enormously and even paid their workers in it, which is where we get our word sal-ary from. The ancient Roman road, the Via Salaria, is still a major road leading to Rome.

And finally, just a bit of trivia: A couple of years ago I visited the Ile de Ré, just off the Atlantic coast of France. Esprit du Sel salt is still harvested from the marshes at the far end of the island and the local donkeys were once used to transport it. Unfortunately the mosquitoes and the corrosive salt irritated the legs of the poor beasts and so the farmers clad them in checked trousers for protection. The donkeys in their unusual garb became a sort of unofficial emblem of Ile de Ré.

We didn’t see any wearing these natty PJs, but here’s one we found in a mural on a cottage wall.

5 comments:

  1. Nice explanation. Here are more photos of the donkeys of ile de re with panties on

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  2. Thanks so much ile de re. One day we will go back. It is a magical island.

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  4. Nice, i'm a food lover, i love to eat different variety of mouth watering foods with natural spices

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