Wednesday, April 25, 2012

's' is for salt

Heaven knows, a civilized life is impossible without salt. ~ Pliny

Salt made from the sea or land has been produced for thousands of years, and the world's regional cuisines have developed in harmony with the availability and nature of locally produced salts. Not for the faint of heart, salt making in days of old was difficult, demanding, and dangerous work. People continually took on the challenge, however, since salt was considered, literally, a treasure. The salts produced as a result embodied the unique character of their particular regions.

Over the years, salt became vitally important - for feeding people and animals; curing and preserving foods; producing chemicals, dyes, and medicines; and tanning hides. Since access to salt was necessary for survival, it localized people. Salt was traded, taxed and often directly exchanged as currency. Salt created prosperity for nations, becoming both a means to achieving power and a physical symbol of it.

The technology and trade advances of the mid-nineteenth century resulted in the development of industrial methods of manufacturing and transporting salt. As a result, the uniqueness of regionally produced salts began to to fade away. By the end of the 1800s, regional salt making had significantly declined in Europe; by the 1960s, mechanized salt producers had led to the demise of most smaller saltworks around the world.*

Far from its days as a sought-after regal treasure, salt had become...commonplace. Housed in small cardboard boxes on the bottom shelves of brightly lit supermarket aisles, consumers not only devalued salt, but didn't really give it much thought at all. A sad story, true, but there is reason for hope. In recent years, consumer values around food - seeking local and sustainable sources, making organic choices, and favoring whole foods over packaged foods - have begun to shift the focus from industrialized salt to artisan salts once again. Hooray!

Jacksonville residents are fortunate enough to have a wonderful local resource for all things salt. Meet Pete Eldridge from The Green Man Gourmet located in the lovely, historic neighborhood of Avondale. Pete and his business partner Dave Hart carry 24 varieties of salt, over 100 different herbs and spices, and a vast array of other culinary delights like coffee, honey, cheese, oils, vinegars, teas, and organic wine. Pete spent most of his career working in Laser Electro Optic Technology (yes, that's a real thing), and Dave was a teacher. Longtime friends who had become a bit weary from their chosen professions, they crafted the concept for The Green Man Gourmet, which was born in 2010.

I recently spent some time with Pete, who is beyond delightful, and as enthusiastic and passionate about salt, spices, and all things culinary as he can be. He explained that the shop sells salts within two broad, major categories - 'wet salts,' and 'flake salts.' "Most chefs use wet salts when cooking," he said, "as most cooking involves ingredients with some degree of moisture in them. When something dry (dry salt, for example) is combined with something wet, a shock happens, which results in a quick temporary flavor boost that dissipates quickly. If something wet is added to something wet, there is no such shock, and the dissipation rate is slower. That's why you will see restaurant servers coming to the table with pepper mills, but not salt mills," he said, "food the chef prepared using wet salt should be salted perfectly." Fleur de Sel, French Grey, and Japanese Aguni are wet salts. Flake salts are considered finishing salts because they are too light to be used in cooking; they include Murray River from Australia, and Cyprus Black Lava, which dissolves quickly when put onto something warm, like a baked potato, which creates nifty black 'lava-like' veins (hence the name).

The shop offers a wonderful array of these salts like Chardonnay Oak Salt, aged in oak chardonnay wine barrels, which are then smashed and burned to smoke the salt. (I know!) The White or Black Truffle Sea Salts are knee-weakeningly good on popcorn, or almost anything really. The Lime Fresco Sea Salt can be used to rim a cocktail glass. And the Himalayan Salt Slabs are beautiful, pink, quartz-like slabs of salt, hand cut from deep in the Himalayan mountains. A microplane can be used to grate salt directly from the slab, or the whole thing can be refrigerated and used as a serving platter for fruits, sushi, vegetables, or cheese. Conversely, it can be heated in the oven or on the grill to cook fish, shrimp or thinly sliced meats. Will your friends be impressed with your skillful use of a Himalayan Salt Slab? I'm thinking yes; yes they will.

Pete and Dave are also connecting and collaborating with other culinary locals like their next door neighbor The Blue Fish Restaurant and Oyster Bar, Twinn Bridges Farm, Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, and the North American Bee Hive Company. They plan to have in-store events with local chefs presenting demonstrations of their techniques, and explaining how they use salts, herbs and spices in their dishes.

I asked Pete about his goals for The Green Man Gourmet. He said "I want everyone who comes to the shop to leave with a smile on their face. We want to be an attribute to the community. For us, it's something from the heart. We aren't just here to sell things to people, but to be a good neighbor and help educate and inspire. We would like our client base to grow, not just for us to prosper, but so we can increase the knowledge base in our community." There is no question that Pete and Dave are very good neighbors indeed.

I encourage you to visit their website to peruse the shop or order online, and visit and 'like' their Facebook page to keep up with happenings, tastings and events. But to fully experience the delights of the shop, you really ought to go in person, find Pete or Dave, and ask them to share something interesting with you about salt. If you're lucky, they might tell you about this romantic and glamorous salt mine chapel in Poland!

*The history of salt is an amazingly complex and fascinating story, which one could spend weeks, months, or even years exploring. For a great initial overview of the history and evolution of salt, along with a field guide to artisan salts, I recommend this resource.