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Friday, June 1, 2012

Salish Sea Salt

One of our most basic ingredients has made the passage from salt of the earth to gourmet accoutrement. Sea salt has even fallen to what I call the Chipotle Effect, a food once considered exotic, known primarily to epicures (who do not credit masses of Mexicans that knew first), that jumps into the mainstream and becomes commoditized to the point that it is featured in Applebees and the snack aisle at Walmart. When sea salt becomes commonplace among the lumpen-pretentious, sending gourmands to ever more specialized and expensive salts. If you have a connection, you can now season your food with salt from all over the world, seasoned with everything from alder to Veruca.

Ironically, some of this amounts to a return to days gone by, when salt was dug and dried from various sources, each with its own texture and flavor and character. Once, all things were artisinal.

But even long ago, salt's fundamentality in the human diet and its non-perishability made it a commodity (and money...thank the Romans for your "salary," working stiff). Saltworks seasoned trade before the other spices, I would bet, even though I'm a pepper man in my soul. Squeezed from the ocean, dug from old seas, alchemied from ashes, salt favors every cuisine, but in many places it is not available, despite the creative ways hominid cooks procure it. It was inevitable that something so unevenly distributed and valuable would become an article of commerce, and as societies became industrial, so too did salt production, and no place more than where it could be dug from geological domes and layers, thus the doleful workingman's epithet for a hard job: "working in the salt mines."

Throughout my childhood, salt flowed fine and easy from cylindrical canisters decorated with a MidCentury OldFashioned girl with an umbrella, distractedly wandering around in a salt downpour. Salt mines were bad and Soviet, we were told, while ours was delivered by kindly capitalists. It was iodized (For Health!), and it was pretty much your only choice other than pickling salt (Kosher!), which decent people did not put in the shaker. Now, afflicted with hardship and unaffected by outmoded (Modern!) prejudices against homespuntineity, we can make our own salt again.

For a sun-drenched six months that I spent mapping a Kona village, I made salt. The people of old had hollowed out bowls all over the pahoehoe, mostly a foot or two across, not deep like the bait-pounding cups. There was salt in them when we arrived, as well as kiawe twigs, crab bits and various other crap you don't want to eat, not to mention the hefty deposit of saltish-looking sand, which hurts to eat. So we swept out a few and poured in some fresh kai (ocean water). Then some more, and then again, because the thirsty lava, parched since the previous Winter's storms, drank til all the vesicles were full and the water could finally pool.

Then we'd wait. The top would dry, and at lunch we'd flip flakes to the edge to expose thicker brine, and then come back the next day to do it again. Sometimes, rain would come in during the night, drunk, reeling up the coast, ruining days of the sun's work, pissing away the salt. Or a bird would drop a carapace or a crap. But eventually, I ended up with a couple of mason jars full of beautiful salt and only a few pieces of sea urchin.

But there's an easier way for you to make salt, and it goes a little something like this:

Salish Sea Salt
  1. Go get some Salish Sea Water (unless there's another kai close by)
  2. Boil it in a stainless steel or enamel pot, stirring occasionally once salt starts sticking to the bottom.
  3. When it gets thick, and the popping bubbles burn your arm, put the brine into a glass or ceramic baking pan, or even a plate. Put it in a 150-200 degree oven and then turn the oven off. You're going for evaporation, not boiling heat.
  4. Go do something else for an hour.
  5. Repeat, scraping any crust (Yum!) that forms to the edge each round, until there's no water. 
  6. Honing your new scraping skills (and maybe your new Solingen steel salt-scraping tool), scrape the salt into something suitably pretentious or functional, depending on your needs.