On a salt trail

by Simone Sekers

WHY it should be that this summer we have been trailing salt is just one of those coincidences. Salt is the one condiment I couldn’t do without and we eat far too much of it in this house. I don’t know if this is why we chose to go to two centres of salt production in quick succession – just for a holiday, but also because it is where you can buy it in unashamed quantities, as a souvenir.

All the saltiest things you can think of – anchoves, olives, bacon, ham, for instance, can be added to a dish to make it extra tasty, but in the end you need salt itself. The value of it was of paramount importance to the Romans, who paid their soldiers partly in salt, and in order to produce it in enough quantity they set up saltworks in the north midlands of England.

The Lion Saltworks in Nantwich was still producing the coarse cooking salt I used for brining in the 1970s, and it is said that the excellence of Cheshire cheese is due to the salt underlying the pastures where the cattle graze.

You only have to look along the shelves of upmarket supermarkets to see that there are lots of posh salts out there now – blue from Pakistan, pink from the Himalayas, a very expensive one from Wales – but I go for two of the simplest, and regret the disappearance of Lion salt.

We went to Brittany first, to dawdle about on empty roads in the week before the French elections (we didn’t see a single poster, apart from one for Marine le Pen, tattered and stuck high up in a pine tree, it was impressive how laid back they seemed to be, compared with our frenzy back home). But although we saw lots of bags of greyish sel de mer in all the gift shops, it was the salted caramels that were hyped, and the salty shortbread sablé biscuits and the cake made with salted butter, kouign amann.

At every restaurant you were given a tiny round dish of salty butter. The salt was seldom offered on its own, at table, but the little pats of butter stated that they came with the sel de mer of the area. For those who are worried about eating quantities of salt, it is perhaps the butter that goes with it that’s the real danger.

Personally, my favourite French breakfast is thick chunks of fresh baguette, unsalted butter, and apricot jam, saving the salted butter to eat with more baguette, and peppery radishes and goats’ cheese for a picnic lunch. Sweet and salty is not a combination I am entirely convinced by, despite the fact that no restaurant worth its – well, salt – would dream of not offering at least one dessert that boasted salted caramel additions.

So it was bags and bags of crunchy gros sel de Guérande I bought in the supermarkets, where it is cheapest, as you aren’t paying souvenir prices, to stow as ballast amongst the wine bottles – it keeps well, and so should see us out, as well as providing presents for those who don’t turn pale at the mention of a condiment they regard as riskier than sugar.

Going to Maldon was a different matter. The Channel doesn’t divide us from Essex, but the M25 does have a sobering effect and so we hadn’t really explored anywhere so directly east. The friends who persuaded us to make the hazardous voyage used as bait their favourite B&B, and on our first morning, at breakfast under a huge umbrella to ward off the very un-English sun, we were served fresh fruit and Aga toast with its nicely singed squares, and perfectly poached eggs, dusted with chopped parsley and with an accompanying dish of Maldon salt.

I can think of no better accompaniment to the egginess of egg yolk than those lovely angular crystals. They are much smarter than the rough and ready Brittany sel de mer, although the saltiness is much the same. Blindfolded, could I have told the difference? Only by the texture, I admit. Salt is salt, unless it is required to be free-running, in which case the additive really does alter the taste, and the intense salty flavour is diluted so you need more of it.

There is no substitute for the real thing, no matter what they tell you. In the gift shop adjoining the Maldon museum, I bought this year’s limited edition boxes, one sporting pictures of beautifully botanically correct radishes, the other ditto courgette flowers. Each contained 250g salt, and cost £2.25, cheap at the price as I know that this quantity lasts me at least six months. One gave a laconic recipe for pesto: Radish tops + cheese + nuts + garlic + oil + Maldon = pesto. As simple as that, and it works.

Maldon was full of surprises all together – good restaurants hiding their lights under bushels; try the Smokehouse, reached down a narrow lane hedged by dog roses to a collection of sheds on the banks of the Blackwater. Or Rubino’s only a few miles away  tucked under a welcomingly shady vine-draped arbour (the temperature was by that time 29˚ at 7.30pm) among a cluster of farm buildings, where we  had a grape gazpacho with radish and horse radish, locally caught cod with a garnish of soft sweet octopus, and a blackcurrant pannacotta with basil leaves.

But it was those breakfasts, eaten as we watched the distinctive masts of the Thames barges as they drew away from the quay, to head slowly out to open water via the inlets and creeks that thread the estuary, imitating all those wonderful Dutch landscape paintings, that we will always remember. And that magic dish of salt.

Pictured: Harvesting sel de mer de Guerande; Maldon Sea Salt; The Hythe and barges at Maldon, Essex.