By Karen James
Look twice the next time you assume that the hands poised over your pasta primavera are offering freshly grated Parmeggiano cheese. If your waiter is holding a chunk of something blush pink, it might be Bolivian sea salt he’s planning to shave with his handy Microplane.
In restaurants, fancy food stores and the kitchens of fashion-forward home chefs, the flavor of the moment is perhaps the world’s most basic: salt. Only this is not the simple white stuff that pours from a round blue box.
Just like pedigreed teas, honeys and chocolates, salt has gone upscale, coming to market from around the world in a multitude of colors and textures and also in flavors such as lavender, truffle and smokey. These salts carry the cachet of fine wines—and in some cases, prices to match.
Rochelle Zabarkes predicts that 2006 may go down in gastronomic history as the year of salt. In November, Zabarkes, the owner of a narrow bazaar in New York’s Grand Central Terminal that sells hundreds of herbs and spices, had a list of customers who were waiting for her shop to receive its next shipment of the latest “it” salt. That would be activated charcoal- and lava-purified black salt from Hawaii, at $7.95 for a half-pound.
“People stopped using salt because of health consciousness,” said Zabarkes, whose shop is called Adriana's Caravan. “Then chefs recognized they liked salt, and wanted it back.”
Professional chefs are dosing their dishes with sea salts they custom-blend with spices. Home chefs are sprinkling their scrambled eggs with salt smoked over hickory. Upscale food stores and online specialty merchants, including Seattle’s SaltWorks, are carrying dozens of varieties of sea salts and blends (many can be ordered online).
Recently at Kalustyan’s, a specialty food store in New York, event planner Andrew Skim longingly caressed a 12-ounce glass jar of the elusive Kilauea Black salt from Hawaii.
“I’ll buy it for you,” offered Skim’s brother, who was visiting from Australia.
Then Skim looked at the price.
“Thirty bucks!” he said. The jar went back on the shelf.
Sea salt now comes in shades from white to clay or gray. Like wine, each variety is known by geographic origin—France’s Brittany coast, the Bay of Bengal—and some chefs swear they can discern regional flavors. Salt comes fine or coarse, moist or dry, pure or infused with aromatic oils.
When executive chef Anthony Paone opened Sea Salt, a neighborhood seafood eatery in Berkeley, Calif., last summer, he replaced ordinary table salt with flaky Murray River salt from Australia. Paone, who has a personal collection of about 20 varieties of salt, explained that algae found in the river stains the salt its delicate peachy-pink shade. Paone likes it for its “brief and enhancing” flavor that doesn’t overwhelm a dish. But at about 20 times the price of kosher salt, the mainstay of professional kitchens, he uses it only to “finish” food.
Paone sprinkles a salt from Cyprus on raw seafood. He seasons Italian frying peppers and grilled sardines with a domineering salt from Mexico’s Chiapas region. Recently he received a chunk of Bolivian Rose grating salt from Naomi Novotny of SaltWorks, his supplier. Novotny said the salt chunks offer more than just a new tableside presentation of an elemental ingredient. The salt can also be ground very fine without the addition of commonly used anti-caking ingredients.
At chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Calif., diners can satisfy their palates by choosing from several varieties of salt offered at table, including Jurassic or Italian Chianti salt, French fleur de sel and salt from the Sea of Japan. When steelhead trout roe is in season, the restaurant's chef de cuisine, Corey Lee, cures it with Danish Viking brand smoked salt. He gives ordinary popcorn an adult upgrade with butter and truffle salt.
Floyd Cardoz, the Bombay, India-born executive chef of New York’s Tabla restaurant, uses salt blends to impart added aroma to his upscale New Indian cuisine. He warms coarse-ground sea salt with toasted cinnamon, clove and coriander to use as a garnish for dishes, including scallops served in their shells with braised greens and roasted chili curry. The wafting scents add a dimension to the taste, he says.
Nirmala Narine runs Nirmala’s Kitchen, a boutique spice and specialty food company in Long Island City, N.Y. There she blends exotic ingredients, including Basque Espelette chilies with French fleur de sel. She suggests home chefs sprinkle sliced apples with her mix of Japanese Oshima Island salt and green tea. She also recommends creating a visual and flavorful surprise by topping creme brulee with a dash of the Murray River salt that she combines with a dried native Australian berry called “bush tomato.”
John Ingrassia, a record executive, recently shopped for salt at Adriana’s Caravan. As he stood gently bouncing a bag of Brittany Sea Salt in his hand, he said he liked the crunch and flavor of the gray salt on salads. “It tastes fresher,” he said.
Though specialty salts can be pricey, Aziz Osmani now stocks 50 salts to keep up with customer demand at Kalustyan’s. Osmani estimates that over three years he has doubled the number of salts he carries to include such varieties as white Handcrafted Balinese ($7.99 for 8.5 ounces); Himalayan Gourmet ($8.99 for 1.1 pound); and hand-gathered fleur de sel from France’s Brittany coast ($14.99 for 5 ounces).
But for all the hype, chef Theo Roe, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., wonders if salt isn’t ultimately just ... salty? A purist, Roe sticks to kosher salt in his kitchen and finishes food with a flurry of fleur de sel. Once salts merge with food, Roe believes it’s almost impossible to distinguish among them.
Besides, salts won’t help you cook well, he says. “What you need is a good French knife and a cutting board.”