Not long ago, coffee was just coffee. Likewise, at one time, milk was more or less milk, either white or chocolate. There was also a time when eggs were all the same, save for the occasional brown dozen. A tomato could be pronounced two ways, but eaten only one: bright red and uniformly round.
Now, at least in places like Seattle, coffee comes whole bean or finely ground, roasted 10 shades of brown, and, if you prefer, grown in the shade of a tropical hardwood tree. Milk now comes raw, non-homogenized, with or without hormones, from grain or grass-fed cows, and in some cases from an entirely different ruminant such as a goat or sheep.
Grocery stores stock eggs not just in different colors and sizes, but from fowl that roam free and are allowed to forage, and fed flax seeds to boost the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in their eggs. And those are just the chicken eggs. Without much effort, you can buy duck and quail and even ostrich eggs these days in a high-end, big-city grocery.
Tomatoes? The word can mean grape, cherry or plum, ripened on the vine, or grown in a hothouse, not to mention the endless variety of heritage or heirloom tomatoes currently in fashion, like Brandywines and zebra. Food choices have grown as people learn more about where their food comes from and care more about how it is produced.
This diversity is in many ways a return to pre-industrial eating, when people ate a variety of foods according to region and season because that is the way nature generally provides. Modern industry simplified and optimized food, made it more convenient and uniform and predictable. Most of what we call the modern food movement — eating organic, eating local, farm-to-table, the advent of artisan food like cheese or bread or ice cream — is probably something old made new again.
So perhaps it was just a matter of time before one of the most basic and the oldest food commodities, salt, underwent this deconstruction. Salt is an essential nutrient, a preservative, once a form of currency, and probably the first substance humans added to food to season it. Apart from cooking food, seasoning it is a uniquely human expression. Before we invented language and art, before we learned to tame animals or grow vegetables, we probably sprinkled salt on our food.
North of Seattle, on Highway 99 in Lynnwood, Scott Mackie sells a variety of sea salts from a nondescript storefront across from the Costco business center. Mackie’s salts come from Hawaii, New Zealand, France, Portugal, Japan, and the Himalayan Mountains, whose prized salt is pink in color and mined from ancient seas when much of the continent was under water. Some of Mackie’s salts, which he sells mostly wholesale to grocery and specialty stores around the country, are blended with garlic, lemon, bacon, onion, truffles, vanilla, coriander, fennel, seaweed, and peppercorns. His Hawaiian, black lava sea salt is blended with activated charcoal. Some of his salts are smoked with apple or cherry wood.
“The average consumer is getting a lot more sophisticated,” said Mackie, who started his company, the Sea Salt Superstore, in 2006 after selling an amusement park he owned for nearly 20 years. Looking for a new business venture, Mackie got the idea of selling sea salt after his son Sean came home from a military posting in England with a bag full of European gourmet salts.
“I became very intrigued and did some research,” Scott Mackie said. “Ninety to ninety-five percent of all U.S. consumers are using processed salt. We think that’s going to change quite a bit. You know how Bill Gates said there’s going to be a computer in every home? We think the same thing about sea salts.”
The salt that humans first used on their food probably did not resemble the salt that is in almost all of our salt shakers and pantries. Common table salt is augmented with the necessary nutrient potassium iodide — iodide prevents goiter, a thyroid gland disorder, and is not found naturally in most foods — and additives like glucose or dextrose and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) that prevent potassium iodide from breaking down into iodine, which would then evaporate.
Table salt also contains various anti-caking agents like calcium silicate, ferric ammonium citrate, sodium ferrocyanide, magnesium silicate, or aluminum calcium silicate. None are harmful, at least in the amounts added to salt, but have no nutritional benefits. Anti-caking agents simply prevent salt from absorbing moisture and clumping, making it easier to pour out of a salt shaker. Coarse sea salt, if it is dry, can be ground fine in a salt grinder, the same way peppercorns are ground in a peppermill. Moist sea salts have to be ground using a mortar and pestle.
“Anti-caking agents might be FDA approved,” Mackie said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s what you should be putting in your system.”
Ordinary table salt like the well-known Morton brand (Morton now also markets several types of sea salt and seasoned salt) is generally mined from underground deposits in coastal areas. The salt is distilled to pure sodium chloride (which has many other industrial uses) before it is processed into food-grade salt containing iodide and some kind of anti-caking agent. Trace minerals, beneficial or not, are lost in the process. Table salt is sometimes bleached, Mackie said, for visual appeal (natural sea salt is generally gray or pink in color).
Sea salt is solar-evaporated (except Himalayan salt) in a process that has not fundamentally changed over the centuries. Seawater is diverted into a shallow pond and allowed to evaporate in the sun. The resulting slurry is raked and separated as salt.
“Sea salt has all the naturally occurring minerals in it that processed salt doesn’t have,” Mackie said. “Different salts all taste different. The one thing you have to consider is the body of water that produces it.”
Salt harvested from the sea is as unadulterated as the waters it is distilled from. Pristine seas produce pristine salt. Himalayan salt, theoretically, is as pure as the ancient seas it comes from.
The most prized sea salt in the world is from France, harvested by hand from the waters off the Brittany coast. French fleur de sel, or flower of the sea, is the first layer of salt that forms at the top of the salt pond. Expensive because it is harvested in small quantities, fleur de sel is damp and light gray in color. And like other sea salts, it is two to three times more potent than typical table salt; a small amount provides a strong salty flavor.
“I was talking to a chef and I asked him, 'What’s your secret to great cooking,’ ” Mackie said. “He said ‘butter and sea salt.’ ”
If you go: Sea Salt Superstore, 19004 Hwy. 99, Lynnwood, 866-999-SALT (7258).
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