April 10 2008
Tasting the salts of the earth
By Tara Lee
Open any cookbook, turn to a well-loved recipe, and you’ll find salt, an essential but seemingly ordinary ingredient. In fact, it’s a complex mineral that has its own terroir, which means that its subtle flavours reflect its distinct locale.
“Salt is like a good wine. It tastes from where it is coming from,” says Jean-Pierre Côté, whose gourmet-foods company, Maison Côté (www.maisoncote.com/ ), includes salt in its product line.
Côté began selling salt in 1991 after he moved to Vancouver and realized that, to his dismay, the marketplace had few salt options outside of regular table salt. He began by offering three different salts, and now has about 150 types that he sells at craft shows and farmers markets. Côté explains that salt is produced either by mining rock salt or by evaporating sea salt, traditionally done with the help of the summer sun. It is during this evaporation that delicate fleur de sel begins to flake on the top of seawater brine.
Table salt contains added iodine and anticaking agents, but Côté sells salts that are in a less processed form and reflect their original mineral content. However, he quickly adds that “salt is salt.” At his warehouse, he has a Hawaiian sea salt that is dusty red from traces of volcanic ash, as well as a sea salt from Guérande, in the French region of Brittany, whose taste and grey colour reveal its magnesium and calcium content. And a pinkish-grey salt—ironically called kala namak, or “black salt”, from central India—has a distinctive sulphuric taste that adds necessary tang to many Indian dishes.
“Rotten eggs!” says Côté, laughing.
As an avid home chef, Côté wanted to find a way to add even more flavour and colour dimensions to his salt. After five years of experimentation, he discovered how to “age” and “marinate” his salts over a few weeks with herbs, spices, and other ingredients. For this purpose, Côté primarily uses an organic New Zealand sea salt that has just enough moisture to allow the herbs and spices to “stick” to the salt crystals. “If you blend with an
average dry salt, all the spice will fall to the bottom,” he explains.
Top sellers include an all-purpose garlic-basil sea salt, and a raspberry-rosemary sea salt that Côté sprinkles on a cored pear half, which he then stuffs with smoked-tuna salad. He relies on his knowledge of traditional flavour pairings and his sense of adventure when figuring out which salt to put in which dish. For example, the dill and garlic sea salt goes well with salmon or trout; his alderwood-smoked sea salt is excellent with ribs, lentils, or tofu; and his fragrant five-spice sea salt livens up Asian stir-fries, Asian dumplings, or even butternut-squash soup.