A French city worth its salt

Workers use time-honored methods to produce gourmet salt in Brittany

If you ever thought that salt was just plain old salt, you should come to Gurande.

Here on France's Atlantic coast, on the edge of a sweeping, shallow bay, stretch marshes where salt production has been raised to an art form.

As with all classical art forms, the raw materials are relatively simple: seawater, sun, and wind. The sun and wind evaporate the seawater, and you are left with salt.

But not just any common table salt. One of two salts produced here is "The Flower of Gurande," whose crystals are skimmed almost individually from the surface of the shallow water in salt pans - only in the evenings, only after the hottest days, only when the breeze is right, and only by women. And it smells faintly of violets.

Lest you think this is a marketing gimmick, a cunning way to get daft "foodies" to pay $20 a pound for salt instead of less than 50 cents, which ordinary table salt costs, hear what Jean-Marc Notelet, a Paris chef, has to say of sel [salt] de Gurande.

"I don't use a grain of refined salt in my kitchen," he explains. "It burns the food it touches the way it burns your tongue if you taste it. But Gurande salt is more subtle, less salty, less aggressive. It is just more agreeable."

Indeed, it is restaurateurs with a taste for the finest ingredients who have helped the salt producers of Gurande build their image and rebuild their industry. Until about 30 years ago, they were having a hard time making a living: Their hand-gathered salt, harvested by the methods artisans had been using for centuries, was being smothered by salt selling at a fraction of the price.

But as French and international consumers have grown more discerning and more demanding, the salt of Gurande has come into its own. Today, the cooperative that most producers belong to is attracting new members every year, abandoned salt pans are being reconditioned, the average age of co-op members is 34, and a dynamic craft industry is flourishing.

"When our grandfathers retired, they would just let the salt marshes die," says Jean-Luc Baholet, president of the cooperative. "Now they are living again."

The first record of salt being harvested here dates back to the 9th century. Mr. Baholet can trace the owners of one of his salt pans in a continuous line back to 1480 - and neither the principles nor the methods have changed much since.

The reedy marshes have been dug and fashioned over the centuries into a complex network of canals, pools, ditches, and salt pans, all traced out in a pattern of dikes and causeways.

The marshes are flooded by seawater at especially high tides, and the water is then trapped by a system of sluices, dams, and locks that feed it into storage ponds.

As summer approaches and the wind blows, the water is very, very carefully allowed to run into the gently sloping salt pan, where it circulates, two or three inches deep, slowly around a series of chicanes, made from minidikes.

It will take two days for a given intake of water to wind its way around the circuit - evaporating and growing saltier and saltier as it goes - before running into the pans themselves, by which time the water is saturated and the salt crystallizes, sinking to the clayey bottom.

But the salt is not easy to collect: You cannot wade in, because the bottom is soft. You cannot rake it, for fear of disturbing the clay and dirtying the water and the salt. So each day, using a kind of 15-foot-long rake without teeth, standing on a narrow dike raised just above the pan, the harvester creates tiny waves that push the salt, in chunky crystals, toward a central heap. There it lies, drying, before it is wheelbarrowed off to be packed.

Regular Gurande salt, which is sold unrefined and untreated, has a faintly green-grey tinge to it, which comes from the clay. The clay also gives the salt a delicately earthy perfume, and a number of minerals that ordinary salt does not contain.

Fleur de Sel, scraped from the surface, is white, the crystals are finer because they form only on very hot days when the water evaporates fast, and the alleged scent of violets probably comes from a minuscule algae that grows in the salt marshes.

Entirely dependent on the weather, Gurande's salt producers have virtually no control over their output. In 1976, when a heat wave lasted all summer, they produced 25,000 tons of salt. In 1980, when the summer was cloudy and rainy, they produced not a single grain.

Nor will Gurande produce any salt this year, but not for climactic reasons.

Last December, an oil tanker broke up off France's shore and spilled 19,000 tons of fuel oil into the sea. Much of it washed up on the beaches and rocky promontories not far from Gurande, and although the saltmakers hastily threw up dams around their marshes to keep the pollution out, they have decided to play it safe this season.

The government says seawater in the area is clean enough to use, but the salt producers have not spent the past 20 years building up the reputation of their product to risk destroying it through bad publicity.

After much debate - for this forbearance will cost the co-op $8 million in sales - they decided simply not to produce any salt at all this season.

"It's a risk," acknowledges Mr. Baholet, since there is no guarantee that the government or the oil company will ever pay compensation for these losses, and the co-op will have to draw down its stocks to keep customers supplied. "But we reckoned the short-term risk was less than the longer-term risk.

"We love this job," he adds. "If we want to go on doing it all our lives, it's better to wipe out one year than to lose people's confidence forever."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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