Exploring salt making in the French Marais

  saltpanr

The salt pans near Bouin. 

Fleur de Sel is widely regarded as amongst the best salt in the world.

It’s a sea salt harvested in the ‘Marais’ – an area by the coast of the Vendee, in the Loire region of France.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Marais, to discover more about this valuable ingredient, and what makes it so special.

salt pan me

Some of the salt pans, like this one that I’m stood in front of, have intricate patterns that reflect the names of the salt producers.

 

As you first drive the long, straight roads through this flat landscape punctuated with the occasional house, tree, gate or wooden post sticking out from the ground, you can be forgiven for thinking that ‘there’s not much here’.

But if you drive slowly, or better still stop, and look out across the landscape, you start to see it is a friendly wilderness – teaming with birds and water-loving animals who have the perfect, undisturbed playground of marshland to enjoy and thrive.

With the privilege of a guided tour by friends living in this extraordinary place, I’ve begun to discover the richness and diversity of life going on here.

The area is home to a small number of oyster and mussel fishermen, who continue a long tradition of families farming this abundant coastline.

It also has a handful of salt producers (Palaudiers) who continue the tradition of harvesting sea salt by hand, with a little help from the wind, sun and sea.

salt pan pattern

A large salt pan near Bouin

Natural sea salt harvesting takes effort, skill, knowledge and patience.

Precisely shaped pools are hand-cut from the flat marshland, creating a pattern of shallow ‘pans’ , separated by narrow earth walkways (vettes), that are then filled and drained in sequence, allowing the salt to collect above the water.

The salt is then raked by hand onto the vette, where wider circles known as ‘ladures’ have been made to allow the salt to dry out. The salt is then just bagged up.

salt pan4

The ‘ladure’ circles where the salt is collected. All these pans are cut by hand. The incredible orange colour is caused by the build up of algae before the salinity of water becomes too great.

And that’s about it – no heavy machinery, no technology, no factory, no big business, no marketing strategy, no secrecy. Just a generation of specialist knowledge and a commitment to continuing a local industry that makes great use of its environment without harming it.

Using Fleur de Sel in cooking.

salt 2

fleur de sel

Because such minimal processing is involved in the harvesting of Fleur de Sel, the salt retains all the micro-nutrients from the sea and nothing is added to it, which is what makes it such a valuable seasoning ingredient.

The salt has a naturally coarse texture, so it works particularly well as a ‘finishing’ salt – sprinkled over home made breads or a roasting chicken for that lovely salty crunch.

But don’t limit your use to the occasional sprinkle. Salt is one of our fundamental seasoning ingredients, so if you use a wonderful, natural salt like Fleur de Sel, your cooking already has a nutritional and natural head start.

I’ll be posting up a future article with some different ideas for cooking with salt using Fleur de Sel.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your salty ideas..

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