Pass the salt please!

There’s salt and then there’s sea salt – one of the many things I learnt on a recent visit to the Salin de l’Ile Saint-Martin in Gruissan.  The salin is located west of the old town, on a site that stretches over 360  hectares – add four zeros to that and you get 3.6 million square meters, and that’s over five hundred football fields!!  And if you think that’s large, the salin in Gruissan is the smallest on the mediterranean coast!  The largest one is at Salin de Giraud, and is over ten times the size.


Our guide welcomed us to the Salin de l’Ile Saint-Martin and asked us to switch our mobile phones to silent – a good start I thought, shows that this lady is serious!  Our visit began with some vocabulary.  A salin is the place where sea salt is produced by evaporation in the south of France.  A marais salant also produces sea salt but along the French Atlantic coast.  A saline is a salt mine where rock salt is produced.  That out of the way we moved on to another term: a saunier is the man responsible for a salin and to become worthy of the name, you have to have at least 10 years of experience.  The saunier usually works on his own for most of year, with extra staff drafted in only during the harvest in August.

The saunier’s work starts in February, when he starts to pump sea water  into the largest basin, the salin being above sea level.  The water is captured 170 metres from the shore, to avoid any pollution.  After a few days in the first basin, the water commences its long journey through a further 99 basins. To start with, the sea-water contains 26g of sodium chloride per litre (NaCl), along with several other salts (magnesium, calcium, sulfur and potassium).  The saunier’s job is to ensure that the end product is pure sodium chloride and he achieves that by progressive evaporation, moving the water from one basin to another, on the way covering 100km.  When the water reaches the last basin, the concentration of sodium chloride has reached 260g per litre, and some of the other salts will have crystallised out along the way.  At that point the saunier lets the brine flow into the crystallisation basins, the last stop on the way to becoming sea salt.  This is where the magic happens – as more water evaporates the sodium chloride starts to crystallise on the bottom of the basins, forming a layer of sea salt crystals, which can be up to 15cm thick in a good year.  The crystallisation basins have a beautiful purple pink hue to them – we had to wait right until the end of our visit for our guide to explain the reason: of all life forms only one species of algae can survive in what is deemed a sterile liquid.  The colour comes from beta carotene contained in the algae and as soon as the salt is harvested it starts to disintegrate and disappears.


At various times during the season the saunier harvests what is called fleur de sel.  This is a very fine salt, which crystallizes spontaneously on the surface of the brine in the crystallisation basin.  It has to be skimmed carefully whenever it appears as it will sink to the bottom during the day.  The resulting salt flakes are of course more expensive than regular sea salt.

The harvest of the sea salt takes place in August.  When the saunier decides the moment has come he will drain one crystallisation basin at a time, the water draining away any other salts still in suspension, leaving behind the pure sodium chloride.  Harvesting can be performed two ways: either by hand with flat shovels, or by machine – the end result is the same, a big mountain of sea salt, which is then processed further.

Before the end of our walk our guide told us to put our hands into one of the crystallisation basins and to take out some salt crystals.  It looked as though that would be very easy – just scoop some out – but to my surprise it was more or less impossible to dislodge anything!  Luckily one of the members of our small group had his trusted pocket knife and prised out a few lumps!  In the brine the sodium chloride crystals are translucent;  it is only on contact with the air that they become opaque and white.


Our guide advised that we should have two kinds of salt for cooking – regular coarse sea salt (gros sel), which is added during the cooking process,  to allow the water to dissolve the strong bond between the Na and Cl ions, and fleur de sel, which is sprinkled over food at the end of cooking (think of a grilled steak :-)) or used in salads, because the bond between Na and Cl is not as strong and dissolves more readily.  Finely milled sea salt still has a very strong bond between the ions and will not dissolve readily, so she thought it was a waste of time to use that at the table.  Another useful piece of advice was to check the labelling on any packet of salt.  A lot of table salt has fillers, which can be anticoagulant agents, and other salts, which do not have a salty taste (only sodium chloride tastes of salt!).  With pure sea salt you are getting what you’re buying, and the coarse salt is not very expensive.


On our way back to the starting point, we were asked to think of uses for sea salt.  All of us came up with gritting and use in food, but nobody had any idea that there are around 14,000 uses for sodium chloride!!  Staggering for sure.   It is used in a wide variety of chemical processes (no PVC without it), in the cosmetic industry, food preservation etc, etc.

Life on this planet would not be possible without salt, as all animal life requires sodium chloride for the cells to function. Next time you use sea salt, take a moment to think of all the work that’s gone into it.

On the way out (or on the way in) you’ll see a few other buildings, which have been converted to new uses.  One houses the salt museum and shop, where you can buy the locally produced sea salt and fleur de sel along with a number of other local products (wine and cookies/sweets).  Closest to the salin is the restaurant, where you can eat fish baked in salt crust, along with locally produced oysters and other delicious food.  Oysters are also available to be taken away.  The last building open to the public contains an art gallery, which houses regularly changing exhibitions of work by local artists.

For more information visit the website of the Salin de l’Ile Saint-Martin. To rent a holiday villa with a view of the salin visit

Almost springtime

Spring is very much on the way in Languedoc – the almond trees have been blooming for some time now, and I just had to share the wonderful flowers with you!


And what better way of celebrating spring than to cook some wonderful food with good friends.  We got together once more in Narbonne, this time to try our hand at tapas, fish baked in salt, and key lime pie.  As before we started our food-fest with a trip to Narbonne market halls.  The selection there is just too wonderful, and great discipline is required not to come away with far more than one needs!



The sepions are tiny squid and we got some for the tapas.  The fish came from the stall just around the corner.  We decided that we needed two and ended up with around 3kg of seabream for the seven of us – too much??


One of my favourite stalls is to one side and stocks a selection of wonderful dried hams and other Spanish charcuterie.  The hand-cranked machine is used to cut beautifully fine slices of dried ham, and it’s fascinating to watch the ham falling like silk ribbons onto the waiting paper.  We got some for our tapas, and I bought some more to take home for later in the week.  After a few more stops for creme fraiche, bread and a few vegetables we headed back to the ranch again, weighed down with bags.

As so often I got too stuck into the cooking and as a consequence did not take nearly enough photographs.  I promise to try harder next time!! 🙂


The recipe we used for the fish came from Jamie Oliver;  I’ve included a link to it here.  The salt mix contained lemon zest and fennel seeds, along with egg and a little water.  So here are the two seabream,  already stuffed with parsley and basil, on a bed of salt.  The fishmonger had gutted the fish for us, and explained that one of them had the roe inside, so he’d emptied them both via the gills instead of cutting the belly open.  Soon they were covered with the remaining salt mix and set aside while we prepared the rest of our feast.


Our tapas selection included some stuffed cherry bomb peppers, bought at the market, tomato toasts (slices of toasted french bread, rubbed with a garlic clove and half a tomato and drizzled with a tiny bit of olive oil), serrano ham, and baby squid.  Have you ever prepared squid?  Well, I hadn’t either!!  There’s a kind of hard, bone like plate inside the soft body, which needs to be removed and the tentacles need to be pulled off the body, which needed to be emptied and cleaned.  Messy work!  the “beak”, the squids mouth, needs to be cut off the tentacles along with the eyes.  Eventually I got them all done, and after rinsing the larger bodies were cut into pieces.  The squid were cooked very briefly with some olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and parsley.  There must have been some ink left as they turned black-ish (no, not burnt!!), and they did taste delicious.


For dessert there was key lime pie.  Well almost, as the limes came from Mexico instead of Florida, but that was good enough.  The recipe we used comes from this website.  We’d initially planned to make two different versions, one which was to be baked and the other which sets without baking.  In the end we made two different types of crust but only made one filling, which turned out to be more than enough.


Making the filling is very simple, the lime peel is grated into a bowl, the limes are then juiced and the condensed milk and creme fraiche mixed with the remaining ingredients – it does thicken magically as the recipe says!  Poured into the prepared crust and chilled for a couple of hours, then decorated.  We decided that the creme fraiche to decorate/serve would have been overkill.



Look at those beauties!!  They did taste every bit as good as they looked and we did eat them both!

Now back to the fish:  Jamie’s recipe says “Pre-heat the oven to full whack” and to cook the fish for 15 minutes.  I do like his ideas but I intensely dislike sloppy instructions like that – every oven is different and “full whack” just doesn’t do it for me.  The fish monger in the market hall had told us to cook the fish at 180 degrees for 40 – 45 minutes and that’s what we did.  It turned out absolutely perfect, juicy and tender.  I found that the fennel seeds and lemon zest in the salt mixture added no flavour whatsoever, so I would skip that next time.  Interestingly enough, the fact that we had left the fish to stand for about 45 minutes meant that the salt had had a chance to penetrate the flesh of the fish.

We did attempt Jamie’s recipe for aioli, which promptly split, despite following instructions.  So we started again using an egg yolk as the base and added the split mixture slowly, resulting in a very delicious aioli, which went very well with the fish.

We also opted to make a different salad to go with the fish, with endives and citrus fruit, to counterbalance the richness of fish and aioli.  All in all a wonderful meal, and everyone agreed that they would be happy to cook the fish in a salt crust again. Do give it a try, and let me know what you think!

And here is one last picture of the almond blossom for you…