Salt of the Earth?

The fundamentals of food are constantly changing from useful to useless. Take oil, which managed to morph from vegetable oil to olive oil, to truffle oil, to rapeseed oil. This is irritating, but pales in significance when compared to the troubles faced by salt. Salt is undeniably important (as in sodium chloride, not the Angelina Jolie film). It has been used as a currency for the Roman army; indeed, the word salary comes from the Latin salarium meaning ‘salt pay’. It has been used to preserve food for thousands of years. More than two hundred million tonnes of it are produced every year. A small amount of it is essential for human life, and too much of the stuff can kill you.  On a more prosaic level, it makes chips amazing.

There is a problem though. The fickle, ever-morphing world of the food fad has claimed salt as its latest victim. New fashions such as this aren’t usually of great influence, and it is not surprising that gourmet delicatessens and the like will gleefully part you from your cash for an ounce of sea salt in a twee, little hessian bag. There are even dedicated gourmet salt companies such as the Maldon Salt Company, which is the official purveyor of salt to the Queen no less. However, now it seems the salt fetish has gone mainstream.

Lindt, as we all know, makes delicious chocolate: it’s just smooth Lindor choccies, and those gold bunnies with the little golden bells, yes? No. They make a bar of chocolate with actual lumps of salt in it. Why would they possibly do that? It’s like buying an exquisite Picasso painting and going to town on it with a biro. It doesn’t stop there either, as Waitrose is stocking Heston Blumenthal branded salt at a fiver a jar, in oak-smoked and vanilla flavour. I can’t even decide whether vanilla salt is designed to be applied to sweet or savoury food: either you will be bringing essence of seawater to your cupcakes, or adding a touch of vanilla to pork chops.

I’m not happy about this at all. I hope that the salt bubble will burst in the same way as truffle oil and liquid nitrogen. However, I worry that salt might become the new olive oil, and the so-called food buffs will snort in derision if anyone tries to season their food with something as lowly as table salt. Also, where does this end? If salt is becoming gentrified, does this mean the next big thing will be single estate pepper? Maybe artisan sugar will be born, or barrel-aged ketchup, or triple distilled custard? Possibly I’ve exaggerated, but hopefully you see my point: it’s not that I’m against good quality food, far from it in fact, but I think that culinary basics such as salt should remain, well, basic.

Pass the Saxa.

William Robertson

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One Comment
  • Magda
    18 June 2012 at 15:22
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    I do agree, that salt is nowadays becoming more of a fashion item and some price tags you can find on branded flavoured types are nothing less than outrageous, but I still can’t help myself but disagree with some points stated in this article.
    Yes, salt is a basic article and should primarily remain so, but certain types like Maldon salt or smoked salt have some specific properties that could not be replaced by basic table salt.
    Maldon salt is specifically used for seasoning meat, fish and salads right before serving, because it comes in form of very thin flakes which, when used right, season the dish evenly and give them quite a distinct salty flavour without being overpowering. Same thing with smoked salt, which, if used well gives food a smoky flavour without it having to go through some difficult and sometimes even quite unhealthy processes.
    Also, yes, Lindt sea salt chocolate is not amazing to say at least, but the use of salt in chocolate is not a new thing and brands like artisan du chocolat or hotel chocolat have been using it succesfuly in their products like salted caramels which are (or at least I think they are) absolutely amazing. Salt in sweet foods should function like a flavour enhancer (like when you bake and you add a pinch of salt into the mixtrue before it goes into the oven). The fact that some mainstream brands have bastardised the idea is just unfortunate.

    And by the way, truffle oil is amazing in scrambled eggs so hopefully supermarkets won’t get rid of it just yet 🙂

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