Salt: The only rock we eat

Wednesday, August 9, 2006
Salt, the only rock we eat, comes in a range of gourmet varieties. From left are, Cyprus Black Sea Salt Flakes, Hawaiian Red Alaea Sea Salt, Australian Murray River Salt Flakes and Danish Viking-Smoked Sea Salt. The white salt in the foreground is Fleur De Sel De Camargue salt. (Photo illustration by Diane L. Wilson)

On April 5, 1930, after marching nearly a month over 240 miles of dusty roads in blazing heat, he arrived at the sea at Dandi and walked up the beach to where the sun's baking rays had produced a thick salt crust. Bending down, he picked up a chunk and boiled it in seawater.

In so doing, Mohandas Gandhi defied the British law forbidding anyone other than the government from making salt and set in motion the movement for Indian independence.

This was hardly the first time that salt, the only rock we eat, played a pivotal role in human history. It has for thousands of years. As historian Jean-Francois Bergier observes, until a century ago, salt was so important politically and commercially that it held a position not unlike that of oil in our own day. Indeed, more wars have been fought over salt than gold.

It shouldn't be surprising that humans have been obsessed with salt. It is an indispensable ingredient of life itself. Without it, human cells cannot function. It's literally in our blood. Perhaps that's why the ancient Greeks considered it divine and why there are some 30 references to it in the Bible.

But besides keeping us alive, salt has many other uses, some 14,000 of them, in fact, which served over centuries to make it a precious, and influential, commodity. For example, the ability of salt to preserve food made exploration possible. According to the Salt Institute, were it not for the practice of salting fish, Europeans might have stayed home, fishing on their own coasts, rather than set sail for the New World. Food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat even speculates that the entire course of Christianity would have been different if the Romans had not been sufficiently interested in the salt of the Dead Sea to colonize Palestine.

These days, however, as Mark Kurlansky, author of a comprehensive history of salt, observes, salt is so cheap and ubiquitous that unlike previous generations we take it for granted. But if trendy chefs have anything to do with it, that too will change.

Today they employ a range of so-called "gourmet" salts that go far beyond what's in the familiar blue box with the picture of a little girl under an umbrella. There's fleur de sel from France, sometimes called the caviar of salt (and priced accordingly); sel gris, a coarse grey sea salt, also from France; Jurassic sea salt from Utah; Kilauea black salt from Hawaii; Australian flake salt, the world's lightest salt; pink Himalayan rock salt, which comes in chunks to be grated at the table much like Parmesan cheese; smoke-infused salt; and truffle salt, just to name a few. No wonder some restaurants now offer a salt-and-pepper tasting menu or a "salt service" of half a dozen gourmet salts.

These salts, which vary in crystal size, color and purity, are not so much for use in the preparation of a dish but as a finishing touch once cooking is completed. As such, they are always good in a pinch.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 on your FM dial. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

Roast Beef in Salt Crust

For years the Cape Girardeau Rotary Club sponsored an annual cookout featuring salt steak, the most succulent slab of beef imaginable. Not even in the most expensive steak house could you get anything better. The Rotarians' secret was cooking the meat encased in a crust of salt, thus sealing in juices and flavor. This recipe, adapted from the back of the Morton's kosher salt box, is a close approximation.

Ingredients:

1/3 cup oil

1/4 cup grated onion

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

3 pound boneless sirloin roast

3 pound box coarse kosher salt

1 and 1/4 cups water

Directions: Mix together oil, onion, garlic salt, basil, marjoram, thyme, and pepper. Marinate beef in this mixture at least two hours in refrigerator. Mix kosher salt and water to make a thick paste. Spread 1 cup of paste to half-inch thickness in bottom of a foil-lined roasting pan. Pat beef dry and place on salt layer. Pack remaining salt paste around meat to seal. Bake at 350 degrees for 60-70 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 130 degrees (medium-rare). (Crust may crack during roasting.) Let roast stand 10 minutes. Remove salt crust. Serves 8-10.

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